Sunday, June 6, 2021

across the leijiverse

Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend
McFarland & Co.
Editors Helen McCarthy and Darren-Jon Ashmore

Leiji Matsumoto isn't as well known in the English speaking anime-fan world as, say, Osamu Tezuka or Hayao Miyazaki. Tezuka’s manga career impacted every facet of the Japanese industry, and his animation aired across America for decades, while Miyazaki’s Academy Award-winning films have become their own aesthetic, a byword for the global reach of Japanese animation as serious cinema. Both are names any lazy entertainment media editor will drop into a headline for maximum clickbait value.

But Leiji? In America his most successful work was the syndicated TV cartoon Star Blazers, the localized Space Battleship Yamato. This series had the bad luck to hit an audience distracted by toy-commercial cartoons starring transforming robots. And yet, Leiji Matsumoto had undeniable impact here in North America. The film based on his Galaxy Express 999 manga was the first non-kiddie anime movie to get a national theatrical rollout. His artistic vision inspired American comics based on animated series that never aired in the States. His predilection for willowy, mysterious blondes ran rampant across syndicated cartoon television, the children's section of your local video rental, and the TVs of your local anime clubs - only Russ Meyer has had a larger impact on the visual portrayal of specific body types of women in the media. But while Tezuka and Miyazaki both have bookshelves worth of English-language texts exploring their lives and careers, Matsumoto has... zero.

However! This Leiji-shaped pothole in our anime knowledge has finally been measured, marked, filled, and steamrolled smooth, no longer impeding our progress. Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend, recently published by McFarland & Co., is the long-awaited hard-copy exploration of his six-plus decades of artistic labor. Editors Helen McCarthy and Darren-Jon Ashmore have assembled a dream team of theorists and craftsmen that explore Leiji Matsumoto's popular works like Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Galaxy Express 999, Space Battleship Yamato, and The Cockpit, with every chapter featuring a different researcher exploring a new facet of Leiji Matsumoto's creativity, skill, and ethos.

With pieces from ten different contributors, the essays are naturally going to differ in tone and focus, language ranging from casual to academic and referencing everything from low-rent comic book publishers to highbrow philosophy. As an academic work Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend isn’t the dashed-off pop culture typical of media fad publishing – this is a serious book that demands and rewards the reader’s extra attention.

Helen McCarthy takes us to then-Akira Matsumoto's youth in Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, raised by parents that instilled diligent self-determination without neglecting culture, art, and film. I knew his father had flown fighter planes in the Pacific during WWII. What I didn't know, and what I learned from this book, is what Dad Matsumoto did AFTER the war, and how his moral code directly affected his family's fortunes and became an example for young Akira. His family survived postwar tragedy and hardship and while the younger brother eventually became an engineer and professor, Akira took the midnight train to Tokyo to find his fortune in the burgeoning manga industry, joining Tezuka, Ishinomori and others brute-forcing an entire medium into existence.

Licca-chan meets Captain Harlock

Matsumoto's early shoujo manga work, in part produced with his wife, fellow manga artist and Licca-chan fashion doll creator Miyako Maki, gave Matsumoto the track record and experience needed for his move out of the girls' school. With a pen name change to Leiji Matsumoto, he moved into worlds of science fiction, adventure, melodrama, and licensed Toshiba mascot characters, doing work for Tezuka's COM and adapting Night On The Galactic Railroad for "Friend of Hope" magazine. As a result, Leiji Matsumoto was perfectly placed to become the visual manager for Yoshinobu Nishizaki's Space Battleship Yamato project. Matsumoto remodeled the series, foregrounding the WWII In Space aesthetic and helping to spur not only a "Yamato Boom" but his own manga stardom, making his style inescapable for the rest of the decade.

Darren-Jon Ashmore explores the infinite canvas of Matsumoto's space opera, contrasting the transformative journey of characters like Captain Harlock, Tochiro Oyama, and Tetsuro Hoshino with Matsumoto's own regional express-train "bildungsroman," traveling as he did from Kyushu to Tokyo to become a man amidst a recovering Japan. Goethe and Wagner both reveal their inspirations for Matsumoto's worldview and Ashmore details the history of space opera with "Doc" Smith's Skylark and Lensman novels, their roots in western pulp fiction, and how Matsumoto combined several genres to push boundaries in late-50s shoujo epics like Marie Of The Silver Valley. Captain Harlock's origins as "Captain Kingston", derived from Sabatini's Captain Blood, reveal where young Matsumoto's dreams were moving; out, away from mundane troubles, to boundless oceans, towards the endless "wheel of time" we all cycle through.

Tim Eldred brings the eye of a professional animator and comic artist to a process-oriented chapter that examines how Matsumoto's work was modified for mass production both here and in Japan. We learn how Matsumoto's ethereal brush line was changed for animation, and Eldred delivers a fascinating look into a forgotten corner of American comic publishing, when comics based on Japanese anime properties could sell in the tens of thousands. His eyewitness look at what it took to publish Eternity's Captain Harlock comics is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes. The problems of quickly rendering fleets of space battleships and of compressing the more relaxed narrative pace of a Leiji Matsumoto space opera into the rigid 24 pages of American periodicals are all detailed. Also reported firsthand: his own evening visiting Leiji Matsumoto at home, finding out what Matsumoto feels is Matsumoto's most representative work and whether Yamato influenced Star Wars or Star Wars influenced Yamato or both (it's both).

Jonathan Tarbox dives into Matsumoto's war stories, little seen in the West but perhaps the best example of comics exploring the human tragedy of warfare since Harvey Kurtzman was editing EC’s Frontline Combat. The Japanese ideals of purity and sacrifice in pursuit of a doomed goal are highlighted against Western concepts of heroism, as Joseph Campbell's mythic thousand-faced hero stacks up against the "noble failed hero" described by Yukio Mishima translator Ivan Morris. We're shown how notions of the ephemeral beauty of human achievement in our fallen world permeate Matsumoto's work, particularly in the three-part OVA series The Cockpit, where three different WWII stories show three different characters wrestling with sacrifice and duty.

1980s American VHS releases of Matsumoto anime films

Stefanie Thomas gets to tackle perhaps the most tangled knot in Matsumoto's intertwining space operas, the world of women and gender roles. What can we learn from Harlock’s female characters - the traditional, mothering Miimay, the boundary challenging Kei Yuki, and the cranky kitchen matron Masu versus the Mazone, who appear to be beautiful, seductive women, but who we're told are asexual plant creatures bent on dominating and/or destroying men? How does Maetel navigate both the 999's galactic railroad and her own character's journey from "mother figure" to "object of sexual desire" and back again? On what page does she name-drop Corn Pone Flicks (126)? Thomas examines the evolution and interplay of these characters against decades of women's rights campaigns in Japan and Matsumoto's own ideas and ideals of womanhood, informed by the women around him during his Kyushu childhood and the femininity presented to him in popular culture.

Captain Harlock TV and Galaxy Express 999 film laserdiscs

Edmund Hoff’s chapter looks at the origins of cosplay culture in 1980s Japan. First-hand reports of the controversies surrounding costuming at fan events like Comiket, the origins of the word "cosplay" itself, and how Matsumoto’s characters fueled the scene all enter into the investigation. Meanwhile, here in the present, award-winning costumers Ondine and Matthew Montoya deliver a detailed how-to guide all about building your own Captain Harlock and Captain Bainas (from 2012's Ozma, based on Matsumoto's 1961 manga) outfits from the ground up, including plans for a Mr. Bird puppet and how to get the proper facial scars without actually, you know, scarring your face.

Translator Zack Davisson speaks to his struggles at translating Matsumoto's poetic idiom into English, finding the rhythm and tone of opera serving as context for rendering the inner monologues and dramatic declarative statements of characters like Emeraldas and Captain Harlock. In live "translation battles" his approach is tested against that of Harvard professor Jay Rubin, and seeing the contrast between their takes on the material is an enlightening look at a process many anime and manga fans might take for granted.

Leiji Matsumoto in Kenya

In the final chapter Ashmore interviews Matsumoto for a wide-ranging conversation that bounces from his love of classical music, the origins of his iconic female characters, the impact of films like Shochiku’s 1943 The Spider And The Tulip, Fleischer’s 1941 Mr. Bug Goes To Town, and Scarlett O’Hara’s determination to never be hungry again. Matsumoto speaks to his early years in the newspaper and print industry, the coldness inherent in digitally-produced animation, and holds forth on the theories of race memory and time dilation that have come to the foreground in his work; the cyclical nature of universal time seeing iconic characters appear and re-appear in new yet familiar guises. Also discussed: how he and Ishinomori were accused of running an illegal underground cinema.

The usual adjective for books like this is “essential,” and usually that’s just overblown hype. In this case, Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend is the real deal, honestly a one of a kind must-have. Informative, unique essays, revealing interviews, and an exhaustive appendix of Matsumoto’s manga and anime career guarantee you’ll be returning to this again and again. English-language work on manga-ka is rare enough, and to finally have the career and philosophy of one of the prime movers of the worldwide success of Japanese animation laid out for us is a pleasure long overdue.

Diecast Arcadia toy (author's collection)

Without Leiji Matsumoto, the infrastructure and industry that’s grown up around Japanese animation in North America would be very different. Certainly without his work I wouldn’t be here writing these words. If you’re interested in Japan or Japanese comics or animation, let alone Space Battleship Yamato or Galaxy Express 999 or Captain Harlock or Queen Millennia or anything else from his lifetime of creativity, Leiji Matsumoto: Essays On The Manga And Anime Legend needs to be on your bookshelf for every single revolution of that wheel of time.

-Dave Merrill

with special thanks to Stephanie Nichols and McFarland

collect 'em all!

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Eric said...

I'll have to look out for this one. I'm sure it counts as some kind of 'splaining, but Matsumoto was the man in anime fandom--I've seen pictures of early cosplayers, probably better than 90% from his properties. (And hardly a word about Miyazaki until fifteen years later or so.)

Darren Ashmore said...

@Eric. Say it is more elucidating than 'splaining. :)
For, that was one of the little needles which provoked the writing: the number of 'moments' through the years in which I encountered fans/professionals who could point to Matsumoto as an inspiration to jump into other things. He is, after all one of the last living foundational creators still living/working.

aniMayor said...

Great summation, Dave, it convinced me to get a copy and I'm through the first 3 essays now - captivating stuff so far!

What's the gorgeous artbook you used for the 3rd and 4th pictures?

d.merrill said...

Hey aniMayor, thanks for the kind words! The artbook is "Leiji Matsumoto's Fantastic World Illustration Album" published by Akita Shoten. Sorry, should have mentioned that in the piece.

aniMayor said...

Thanks! I'll have to keep that one on my radar, too, looks like a beautiful album!