A Leijiverse of Possibilities – The Mike Toole Show

Obviously, I’m going to putting manga and anime maestro Leiji Matsumoto under the microscope this week. But before I do that, I’ll point out that just a week ago, I was at Anime North in Toronto, which was my first time experiencing an anime convention outside of the United States. My presence there was fortuitous; some long-promised vacation time came due, and in the same week, the United States soccer team would square off against Canada (that happens later today) while my hometown Red Sox played a series against the Blue Jays. The trip just made sense, so here I am in the true north, strong and free!

Anime North had all of the stuff that good fan conventions have: good programming, great staff, a large and buzzing dealer’s room, cosplayers galore, fascinating guests like Yuu Asakawa and Helen McCarthy, and most of all, thousands and thousands of excited, engaged anime and manga fans. What probably made the biggest impression on me, however, was the total lack of shout memes. If you’ve been to a con on the east coast, you’ve heard them: con kids in public areas shouting some sort of odious internet catchphrase in groups, or trying to play the world’s largest game of Marco Polo. This practice is so pervasive at my hometown con of Anime Boston that I just figured that all cons do them. Here’s a question, though: if literally thousands of con attendees enjoy playing Duck, Duck, Goose in front of the escalators, how do you get them to stop?

Dumb questions aside, let’s address the famous Mr Matsumoto, he of Star Blazers and Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express fame. Leiji Matsumoto was born Akira Matsumoto in 1938, and his experiences as a kid would really shape his growth as a manga artist in the decades that followed. He grew up during and after World War II; his dad served in the military, so he got to see a lot of hardware close up. After a forced evacuation, Matsumoto and his family would struggle with poverty during the first years in the US occupation, but he’d eventually get sorted out and return to school. If you want an idea of what Matsumoto’s experiences as a school-age manga artist were like, check out Yoshihiro Tatsumi‘s A Drifting Life – both of these guys (and many more now-famous artists) grew up in an incredibly exciting time; in the 1950s, Japan wasn’t just shrugging off its postwar economic blues in record time, the manga business was exploding. And the pioneering Osamu Tezuka was right there on the frontlines, regularly meeting with young artists to encourage them. Matsumoto and his pals published doujinshi in high school, and his skill would win him a prize from Manga Shonen magazine. By the age of 20, Matsumoto was drawing manga for magazines – girls’ magazines, that is, like Girls Club. Here’s what one of his Akira Matsumoto titles, Maria of Silver Mountain, looked like:

You can already see an aspect of his style, his yen for slender, willowy women, emerging. In ‘65, Akira Matsumoto changed his pen name to Leiji Matsumoto, and started pursuing jobs in boys’ manga anthologies and newspapers, to supplant his steady girls’ comics work. None of his attempts made much of an impression until 1971, when Otoko Oidon! (“I am a man!”) debuted in Weekly Shonen and promptly won the Kodansha Manga Culture Award. Otoko Oidon! was markedly different from his earlier work – less fanciful, it was a bleak, earthy comedy chronicling the struggles of a dirt-poor ronin as he worked to pass his college entrance exams. There’s a taste of it in Fred Schodt’s Manga Manga!, a great panel that depicts our hero crying manly tears as he’s forced to cook an egg directly on his only kitchen appliance, a hot plate.

Think about that for a moment: Matsumoto’s real hitmaker came in 1971, when he was 33 years old. Akira Toriyama was 25 when Dr. Slump hit. Rumiko Takahashi was in her early 20s when she kicked out Urusei Yatsura and got famous. Tezuka himself was just 21 when his New Treasure Island became a huge manga hit. The fact that Matsumoto started early and kept on pushing for over a decade until his big break is interesting – you’ve got to admire his patience! Anyway, Matsumoto was also making a name for himself amongst war manga buffs with Senjō manga, a set of unconnected tales of World War II. But anime was booming; he’d watched contemporaries like Go Nagai and Shotaro Ishimori achieve greater fame in animation, and was just waiting for the right offer to come along. He got that offer in 1974, when producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki came calling. Nish had read Matsumoto’s Sexaroid manga, and wanted a big name to attach to his Asteroid Icarus TV project, and Matsumoto wanted an anime project that afforded him a great deal of control and input. The result, which took shape over a few months of meetings, (chronicled in incredible detail here) was Space Battleship Yamato.

We know how that story turns out: despite some sputtering (Yamato was never a TV ratings champ), Space Battleship Yamato was an immense cultural phenomenon that made both Nishizaki and Matsumoto celebrities. Thanks to his heavy involvement in production (Matsumoto turned in story drafts, character sheets, mecha designs, and lots more, and is credited as co-director – possibly because the fledgling studio Office Academy famously used his kitchen to animate some sequences) Matsumoto considered Yamato his own project, and introduced his original character, Captain Harlock, into the cast. A lot of older fans know this story – the twist was that Harlock, the famous space pirate, would turn out to be series hero Susumu Kodai’s missing-presumed-dead older brother – but Harlock was written out of the TV version before he made it onscreen. If you want to see how that played out, Harlock made it into Matsumoto’s Yamato manga.

Ah yes, Captain Harlock, Matsumoto’s Michael Moorcock-esque eternal warrior. Harlock was originally Captain Kingston, a character Matsumoto created in high school, based on a schoolmate of his. Harlock, who flies the skull and crossbones, protects the weak, and fights the good fight against corrupt government and oppressive occupying forces. Harlock, whose spaceship looks like a pirate galleon, right down to the giant nautical wheel he uses to control it. Harlock, scarred and eyepatched from the ravages of war and lost love. Harlock, who looks and acts so damn cool!

Captain Harlock would shoot to infamy on the wings of Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Toei‘s 1977 TV series, but the character of Harlock – an outlaw who shoots straight, drinks wine, and looks for trouble – actually debuted in Gun Frontier, Matsumoto’s 1972 old west manga. Yep, before he was a space pirate, Harlock was Frank Harlock, six-shooting sidekick to Toshiro Oyama, a swordsman combing the American southwest for a lost clan of samurai. This version of Harlock would be resurrected for anime in 2002; by this point, Harlock in general had been popular for decades.

We all love cool Harlock, but Matsumoto’s most enduring hit would come… after Starzinger and Danguard Ace, two awesome silly robot cartoon shows from Toei! Well, alright, Starzinger isn’t a robot show – it’s actually a sci-fi take on Journey to the West featuring the heroic Kugo (that’s “Goku” spelled backwards! Did I just blow your mind?!?) as he has temper tantrums and fights the bad guys with an extendable pole in space – you know, typical monkey king stuff. Danguard Ace remains Leiji Matsumoto‘s sole entry in the super robot genre, and looking at the manga, it’s easy to see why. The titular robot appears only occasionally, and never for long – and it looks really, really different from Matsumoto’s stock mecha designs, which favor bristling gun turrets and huge instrument panels. I’m betting that the robot itself was drawn by one of Matsumoto’s assistants – Kaoru Shintani, no doubt. But our hero, Winstar (that’s his name in the Force Five dub, which is awesomely terrible) is supported by the mysterious Captain Mask – who, when unmasked, turns out to be his missing dad, a point so obvious that they didn’t even conceal it in the dub. My favorite detail is dad’s Harlock-esque scar:

Midway through Matsumoto’s career, we’re starting to see patterns emerge. His next entry would, as I said, be his most broadly popular: Galaxy Express 999, the Huck Finn-esque story of a rebellious kid and his rocky journey to adulthood. 999 hit TV airwaves first, and while the TV series is enjoyable, it has a formula– each episode young Tetsuro and his companion, the beautiful and mysterious Maetel, board the titular space train to visit a different planet with some sort of crazy problem– that gets stale from time to time. What woud put 999 over the top were the two movies, released in 1980 and 1981. These are tight, engaging, and visually rich films – they perfectly encapsulate the appeal of Leiji Matsumoto‘s work, from his “manly romance” ideals to his love of the hero’s journey, from his constant use of oppressive occupiers as villains to his love of slender, Marianne Hold-esque heroines. They’d win cultural prizes, be showered with acclaim, and become box office champs.

Harlock appears in GE999, of course, but only in a supporting role. I think perhaps he works best this way; Matsumoto has tinkered constantly with making Harlock his central hero, and he’s a little different every time, but in his GE999 role as rescuer and mentor, he shines. Harlock would take center stage again in the 1982 movie Arcadia of My Youth, but before all that, we’d get 1981’s Queen Millennia.

Queen Millennia is overshadowed heavily by Matsumoto’s imagery of space pirates and intergalactic trains, which is kind of a shame – it’s perhaps not as famous as Harlock and GE999, but its storytelling isn’t any less epic, and its characters are just as big a part of Matsumoto’s grand tapestry as the likes of Maetel and Tochiro. Queen Millennia doesn’t concern itself with sweeping space warfare; it’s a conspiracy thriller involving a shadowy planet (named La Metal, natch) and a hidden lady, waiting in the wings to be crowned Queen Promethium.

Remember what I said about Matsumoto repeating himself? La Metal and Queen Promethium featured in Galaxy Express 999, and they’d return to his stories again and again. Harlock himself would return for Arcadia of My Youth, an origin story of sorts– but not the same origin that we saw in the Harlock TV series. This is where the Matsumoto-verse gets grandly and gloriously complicated. Sometimes Harlock has a lost lover; other times he’s out of reach of the show’s women, except maybe for Mime, the ship’s resident musician/boozehound. Sometimes his friend Tochiro has a child with Emeraldas, Harlock’s comrade in space piracy and cool facial scars, and sometimes not. Tochiro ends up dying a noble death, but never in exactly the same way. When presented with these inconsistencies, Matsumoto himself will smile, and insist that no, all of the events in his manga and anime happened, and they’re all part of the same timeline.

When Emeraldas and Maetel meet, in Galaxy Express 999, they’re cold, maybe even a little confrontational. It’s weird, and a bit intriguing. Matsumoto will drop the bombshell that they’re sisters in an interview, and years later, in the OVA Maetel Legend and the TV series Space Symphony Maetel, we’ll learn about their sisterhood, and their relationship to their mother, Promethium– who used to be Yayoi Yukino, an earthwoman at the center of millennium-long conspiracy. Harlock takes on Tadashi Daiba, a murdered astronomer’s son, with the words: If you want to be a man, come aboard my ship. This sequence plays out three different ways in the Harlock TV series, the Harlock Saga OVA, and the Captain Herlock: Endless Odyssey OVAs. Matsumoto has spent his career building a universe, but I don’t think it’s a universe of times and dates and events, but one of myths and legends. After all, why should events always play out exactly the same?

To try and figure out the whole Matsumoto oevre, I put together this family tree, which I assembled using a totally original image that I didn’t find on the internet by typing “donald duck family tree.” Check it out:

As you can see, it’s not much of a family tree at all; it’s more of a rough taxonomy of Matsumoto’s character archetypes. In one area, you’ve got the Harlock clan. In the top left, you’ve got the plucky and angry young men from his various productions. There’s women that look like Marianne Hold, there’s cats, and most of all, there’s a bunch of dudes that look like potatoes. Tales of immense spectacle, of heroism and sacrafice, are what Leiji Matsumoto is all about, but don’t forget the guys with weird potato-heads!

Matsumoto had his heyday in the late 70s and early 80s, but he’s one of those creators who’s been lucky enough to have a second boom. He had a couple of last-gasp turns as character designer for Office Academy, in the forgettable Materlink’s Blue Bird TV series and St. Elmo’s Fire TV movie, but he wouldn’t return to anime until 1993’s The Cockpit. The Cockpit is a sumptuous 3-part OVA that mines his 70s war opus, Senjō manga, for choice stories; look there for spiritual predecessors to Harlock and Tochiro! The real Matsumoto rebirth would begin with 1998’s Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy, a pretty but entirely unnecessary third 999 movie. Later in ‘98 we’d get Queen Emeraldas, in which Harlock’s pal and Tochiro’s paramour steps to center stage for the second time (she got a theatrical featurette way back in the day, too). This is key, because it served to re-introduce Matsumoto’s characters to western audiences in a lot of markets– Viz’s VHS release of Galaxy Express 999 didn’t make a lot of waves, but ADV Films went all out in their marketing of Emeraldas, which was also helped by being one of the first anime DVDs in North America. Interestingly, there were four episodes of Queen Emeraldas, but only two saw release here. If you want to know why, just track down the fansubs of the second two and watch them; you’ll curse me later.

In 1999, we’d get what is one of the weirdest entries in the Leiji-verse, a theatrical film entitled DNA Sights 999.9. The hooks are obvious, but the movie itself is a queer amalgam of Matsumoto tropes, including a hero named Tetsuro Daiba, an occupying force, a lady that looks like Marianne Hold, and best of all, Harlock appearing just long enough to blast away the bad guys. Blaring in the background, you’ll hear weak synthesizer versions of music from Wagner’s Ring Cycle, which would herald the arrival of Matsumoto’s next project: Harlock Saga!

I actually liked Harlock Saga quite a bit; despite some lousy early CG, it does an excellent job of conveying Harlock’s fight as more of a myth than a strict story – characters from all over Matsumoto’s world make appearances, Tochiro gets to be kind of a badass, and it’s pinned together with actual orchestral music lifted from Wagner’s Ring. After that, we’d see no less than four TV series on ATX in 2001 and 2002. There’s the aforementioned Gun Frontier and Space Symphony Maetel, there’s Submarine Super 99, which is another deal that’s based on a really old Matsumoto manga, and there’s Cosmo Warrior Zero.

Zero actually sprang forth from a PlayStation game. It’s not a great TV series, but I like it for a few reasons. It turns the Harlock story on its head, presenting the conflict from the other side, as ship captain Warrius Zero is commissioned by the occupying Machine Empire to hunt down Harlock, who happens to be an old friend and comrade. It has some really surprising moments of comedy– one episode is concerned entirely with chasing down a giant mutant cow, rendered in goofy Matsumoto cartoon-syle– and it’s got a strong dub, anchored by manly performances by Crispin Freeman as Zero and Steve Blum as Harlock. None of these 4 TV shows are truly great, but they do a decent enough job of expanding the Leijiverse.

A hint of greatness would come in 2003, which was when Rintaro, who directed those great Galaxy Express 999 movies, took the helm of the Arcadia again for Captain Herlock: The Endless Odyssey. The “Herlock” spelling is a funny little point of contention; apparently, that was supposed to be the official spelling from the beginning, but it never caught on. Endless Odyssey retreads a lot of the same ground, but with different bad guys– it frequently looks great, but it’s kinda par for the course. I actually haven’t managed to finish it yet, so please don’t tell me how it ends. (Does it end?)

2003 would also bring The Galaxy Railways, a more satisfying return to the world of Galaxy Express 999. It’s about Manabu Yuki, a member of the rail police in the galaxy-spanning “railroad” that connects the planets in the Leiji-verse. It’s solid stuff, Funimation released the first season here in the US, and of course, Matsumoto would eventually reveal that Manabu is related to Kei Yuki, one of Captain Harlock‘s crewmembers from way back in the day. What would come next is unquestionably the most popular Matsumoto anime of our generation.

It could only be INTERSTELLA 5555, right? When the Daft Punk guys were putting their album Discovery together, they used a lot of loops and samples from late 70s and early 80s funk and soul records– the idea was to present a rich slice of their own musical childhood, just remixed and repackaged. When they were kids, they watched Albator a.k.a. Captain Harlock, so involving Leiji Matsumoto in the visual element of their new album seemed natural. Fortunately, Matsumoto was available and ready to go – and when the leadoff single and video, One More Time, caught fire, the rest of the film took shape. There are no sweeping cameos for Harlock or Maetel in INTERSTELLA 5555, but it still fits neatly into Matsumoto’s ideal: there’s a dashing and somewhat tragic hero, there’s valiant characters being oppressed by a brutal occupying force, and there’s a dude that looks like a potato.

We’re rapidly approaching the present, and there’s one thing I really need to address: the Space Battleship Yamato deal. See, Matsumoto thought of it as his own, but it wasn’t – Nishizaki was the original creator, and he retained the rights to it. In the mid-2000s, Matsumoto decided to re-estabish himself as the Yamato guy, de facto or otherwise, and did so by launching a new manga, Dai Yamato Zero-go. We’ll just call it Great Yamato. Great Yamato was Yamato turned up to 11– a bigger ship, bigger heroes, and larger-than-life bad guys. It sparked a pretty terrible OVA, and it also sparked a legal challenge from Nishizaki over the rights to Yamato. Matsumoto lost that lawsuit, which means he can’t use the Yamato name anymore. The manga was retitled Great Galaxy, and the creator has had to be careful to stay away from any element that looks too similar to the original Yamato stuff. It’s unfortunate, but that’s business for ya.

These days, Leiji Matsumoto is still keeping himself relevant with a new 6-episode series called Ozma. It’s interesting, because it’s something of a departure– while it still sports his dashing heroes, oppressive enemies, and guys that look like potatoes, Ozma doesn’t have a clear Harlock Guy or Maetel Lady. Instead, it’s about a band of rebels in a sand submarine, and the plucky/angry kid at the center of it all. In a career spanning five decaes plus, Matsumoto repeats himself a lot – but he manages to do it differently almost every time.

The only unforunate thing is that, aside from Yamato and Daft Punk, Matsumoto has never been popular in North America. The Cockpit and DNA Sights 999.9 fared poorly enough that Urban Vision never released them on DVD, and we had to wait over a decade to get the great Galaxy Express films on disc. Funimation tried hard to sell fans on Galaxy Railways, but it fell by the wayside, and its second season remains unreleased in the west. We’re still waiting for that next Leiji-hit. But what’s your take on the Leiji-verse? Are you upset that there isn’t a clear, coherent timeline? Do you love the Harlock of the TV series, or do you prefer the more modern, nuanced Harlock? Do you love Matsumoto’s alluring women, or do you secretly wish he’d try drawing a second girl character design? Sound off in the comments!

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