Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 4

Leiji Matsumoto, Bushido, Manhood, and Womanhood, Part 4

Phantom F. Harlock

I wander the edge of the stars
People call me
Captain Harlock! Captain Harlock!
Hoist the skull and crossbones flag
In a sea without tomorrow

Leiji Matsumoto does not write war stories. The pain, chaos, senseless destruction, and especially the death are of no interest to him. He has stated that he is interested in life. As such, his characters live. The only one who dies is Tetsuro and even that becomes part of his mythology. The guy dies in every story! Then he is reincarnated, greater than before. The rest of the characters are untouchable, eternally young, more Greek gods than anime characters. You’re not even going to get a secondary character death like they do in the Star Wars novels every few years. You know going into a Matsumoto story that the heroes will survive everything, even in spite of themselves.

Captain Harlock’s crew are not soldiers. At least, not as we traditionally think of them. The first mate Yattaran will work on his model kits in the middle of a battle. The rest of the crew spends their time napping and playing games. There are cantankerous cooks. Cute kittens. Weepy vultures. Harlock’s unstoppable army of freedom fighters is populated by straight up cartoon characters. Yet they are, without a doubt, heroes. It is interesting that, toward the end of the Harlock series, several red shirts die in battle. Their deaths are skimmed over; this is a universe where they don’t dwell on grief.

Matsumoto is not concerned with wars between nations or ethnicity. Not when the true enemy is apathy. In his dystopian futures, machines do everything and humans are losing their ambition in favor of sloth. Queen Lafresia and Queen Promethium are antagonists, but not so much as the apathetic Earthlings who view Harlock as a radical. At least the evil queens made an attempt to be honorable, unlike the spineless human bureaucrats. Young man: never be complacent! Never lose that will to strive! In the Leijiverse, bushido is the answer to the evils of complacency.

The historicity of bushido as a concept has long been in question. The British scholar Basil Chamberlain accused Japanese critics of inventing the concept at the turn of the 20th century in order to create a national identity in the wake of Westernization. I find Matsumoto’s bushido in line with the concepts of Inazo Nitobe, author of Bushido: The Soul of Japan. According to the theorist, bushido was a demilitarized code revolving around loyalty, politeness, self-control, endurance, and other positive qualities. Nitobe saw it as something everyday Japanese could achieve, not just samurai. It is notable that he was critical of colonialism, his view of bushido at odds with the emperor-worship and death-worship that arose after the Russo-Japanese War. The demilitarized egalitarian ideal is impossible to reconcile with the militarism that fueled Japan’s imperial juggernaut.


There is no doubt Japan had a samurai class with its own code, same as knights had the code of chivalry in Europe. But the modern concept of bushido is amorphous and sometimes contradictory. The same can be said of Matsumuto’s work. After all, this is an author who combines Japanese and Western myth, who espouses pacifism while fetishizing WWII-era imperialism. Harlock’s crew swears allegiance to no government, but their worship of the man himself is like that of an emperor. Matsumoto claims to believe in life, but his characters embrace death-worship. Harlock and Emeraldas literally have death on their clothing. And while Matsumoto shares the egalitarian views of Nitobe, that doesn’t change the fact that, in his universe, failure goes hand-in-hand with femininity.

Yet there is undeniable strength in the feminine. The Harlock episode “Dr. Zero and Mii” is a spotlight for Zero, the show’s requisite alcoholic doctor. When the Arcadia is attacked by a squadron of Mazone fighters, he takes this as his opportunity to fight and shows up on deck wearing samurai armor. I guess he was stashing it in his quarters the whole time. The dogfight is spliced with flashbacks of how he came to care for Mii, his cute little cat. Neko-chan then joins him in his cockpit, warning him of oncoming Mazone so he can blast them to smithereens.


This scene is as meaningful as it is cute and ridiculous. On the show, Dr. Zero is a true white-hat, the voice of compassion. An ordinary man who is willing to fight when duty calls, but also has a nurturing side. This goes to show that a complete man can have—even should have—these feminine qualities. And it is their capacity for humility (a feminized trait in Japanese society) that separates the crew from their enemies. Harlock himself isn’t that humble, but he believes in friendship, and it is that loyalty to his friends that elevates him. The Mazone, although female, are very masculine in their behavior. The men of the Earth government are feminized weaklings. And in the middle, you have our heroes the space pirates, who have achieved a balance.

This brings me back to gender dynamics. The fight against the Mazone is not against women, but against dishonor. Matsumoto employs female characters as antagonists because of the “feminine mystique” in fairy tales. But he still sees the feminine as integral to the holistic person.

The Force of Nature

Woman as nature. Makes sense: nobody calls the earth their “father.” The Force of Nature has her most prominent role in Arcadia of My Youth. At the beginning of the film, Harlock’s ancestor attempts to fly through the Owen Stanley Mountains. The mountain pass is anthropomorphized as the Stanley Witch, a woman laughing in a deep voice. However many years later, Captain Harlock has to guide the Arcadia through solar flares that magnetize living bodies. It is the Stanley Witch . . . of Space! Once more, the dangers of exploration are portrayed as female.

This particular character calls to mind Hans Christian Andersen’s Ice Maiden. In the story, a young boy escapes death in a mountain crevice, and the personification of the mountain plagues him to adulthood . . . until she finally has him. She is nature as wanton, death as seductress. And she will not be denied.

Harlock, of course, denies her. ‘Cause he’s Harlock. The Force of Nature is Matsumoto’s ultimate ode to the fairy tale—the elemental power of woman.

I view La Miime as a cross between the Beautiful Mysterious Woman and the Force of Nature. For whatever reason (it varies story to story), she has dedicated her life to Harlock as his servant/possible courtesan. Mostly she plays harp in his chamber, providing a soundtrack to his brooding.

la miime

Tellingly, she has no mouth. She was rocking that look long before Hello Kitty. La Miime is the ideal Japanese woman, the picture of quiet politeness. Then again, the fact that she’s a purple alien only serves to show what a construct this gendering is. Matsumoto would not have created a character like Emeraldas if he’d internalized such roles.

In the Harlock episode, “Unrequited Love! The Northern Aurora,” Matsumoto ratchets up the fairy tale references. To summarize, the Snow Queen captures Harlock and puts him in a Snow White-style coffin. She has been waiting a thousand years to kill him, and, of course, hates him so much she falls in love with him. You know how it goes. This causes La Miime to unleash on her with Dragonball Z-level power. She will protect her lord, no matter what. Though she is pretty much a goddess, she is humble. A true samurai.

The artist’s equation of “manhood = bushido” is simple on the surface. It is through the female characters that he expands on his viewpoint. The Beautiful, Mysterious Woman represents the uncertainty that faces those who follow the path of bushido. The Girl at Home is both what the modern-day samurai fights for and the potential for bushido in the domestic sphere. The Comrade is a feminist character: a female samurai. The Evil Queen is the failure of bushido. The Force of Nature is the danger that awaits the samurai on his path. With these tropes, Matsumoto weaves intersecting tales of ordinary and extraordinary people seeking, finding, and failing to achieve honor. In scope and accomplishment, his work is altogether awesome.

Recently, young animators have gotten to play in his sandbox. Galaxy Railways is a great show. So is the Ozma miniseries. A boon to these new stories is that the idea of the “Matsumoto woman” has been expanded. The Comrade now looks like a normal girl.


It’s nice that they’ve expanded the character design to represent women who are neither outrageously beautiful elves nor potato people. And here’s something better . . .


The drunk doctor is a woman now! Progress! That’s the doctor from Ozma. The series is particularly cool in that it’s Matsumoto by way of Miyazaki, with a plot that reminded me of Princess Mononoke. It has a terrestrial, Mad Max-type setting, which is new for the Leijiverse. Also, the creators get the mythic quality that Matsumoto is going for. The captain character is Emeraldas. They don’t call her Emeraldas, but it’s obviously her, reincarnated once again.

Leiji Matsumoto is, simply, a treasure. Here is some essential viewing:

Space Pirate Captain Harlock (TV series)

Arcadia of my Youth (movie)

Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers (start with the first season, before deciding whether to go down the rabbit hole)

Galaxy Express 999 (TV series and movie)

Queen Millennia (TV series)

Harlock Saga (OVA)

Gun Frontier (Matsumoto meets Sergeo Leone)

All wonderfully mythic series. And remember, space pirates, these words from Arcadia of My Youth:  “Though the night goes on, the sun will not die. At the end of the darkness, it will keep shining. Lift up your faces, friends, and look up at the dawn. Friends who still do not see, tomorrow will surely come. Friends whose names I do not even know, tomorrow will surely come…”

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