The key to understanding Leiji Matsumoto, I think, is that he isn't dealing in science fiction or even fantasy per se, but is a spinner of fables. On the surface, his works come off as operatic pulp SF — the space-pirate adventure of Captain Harlock, the there-and-back-again epic journey of Galaxy Express 999. But the SF and fantasy trappings of those stories are just that, trappings. At core, these are mythologies, and that is what's great about them for some and frustrating about them for others. All of this also applies to Queen Emeraldas, originally created in 1978 as a successor of sorts to Captain Harlock, and now in English for the first time from Kodansha.
If you are fond of broad, theatrical gestures, if archetypes suit you as readily as characters do, Emeraldas (and all the rest of Matsumoto's work, too) will be just your mug of root beer. If not, you'll be wincing at what seem like hammy declamations and questionably motivated behaviors. Me? I loved it, but I also had a good sense of what I was getting myself into.
Emeraldas is a Harlock sequel-of-sorts, but even if it had no formal connection to that story, it might count as one because of how Matsumoto's stories tend to share a common universe . Not just one with a common background or an extended cast of characters, but one with a unifying philosophy. The human race has reached out to the stars, but doing so has not ennobled it. Life amongst the stars is reminiscent of the Wild West, with winners taking all and the rest crushed by either indifference or cruelty. This is no place for the innocent or the idealistic, but Matsumoto casts his lot with such people; they're the ones who most need his sympathy and deserve our attention.
Harlock and Galaxy Express both featured hapless (shilling for helpless) young men for their protagonists; Emeraldas is the same. Hiroshi Umino, the hero this time around, is actually not all that hapless, as he built his own spaceship to escape Earth. It crashes on Mars, and while he weeps over the wreckage, he's approached by none other than the mysterious Emeraldas, Pirate Queen of space, who gives him encouragement and a sidearm. "If you are truly brave, boy," Emeraldas tells Umino, "we will surely meet again in the vastness of space."
Emeraldas wants to know what spurs him to escape Earth; Umino will not tell her, or by extension, us either. "A woman could never understand!" he blurts out, in what could be interpreted as something he himself has to grow past (this is only a first volume, after all). Emeraldas is also tight-lipped about what drives her: she, too, is scouring the universe for something or someone, but the only hints we have towards that come by way of distant insinuations dropped in the narrative bookends for each chapter.
Umino boards a ship for Ganymede, where he hopes to work in the mines and scrape together enough money to build himself another ship. When the captain tries to toss him out the airlock as a way to lighten their load, Umino tries to fight back, finds himself at a disadvantage — but then Emeraldas comes to the rescue, albeit with a hard lesson. Space has one code, kill or be killed. That said, the way she delivers this lesson implies that she is only armoring him with it because she wants him to transcend it — to survive without also losing his soul.
The stars their destination
Emeraldas is not the only one who sides with Umino on the sly. One of the overseers at the mine where he works sees a spark of something in Umino. The overseer takes in the young man and provides him with a domestic job while laid up on medical leave, but his daughter resents the way Umino is shown favor, and tries to have Umino killed while on the job. This leads to one of the more unnerving moral choices made by a character in the story, where the overseer turns his own daughter in and has her executed by firing squad. "If a man can't complete his tasks," he tells Umino, "then he shouldn't accept the job." Umino now has to face the possibility that he, too, will someday have to make such a decision.
Umino and Emeraldas journey onwards, their paths sometimes intertwining. We learn how Emeraldas acquired the ship she now sails in, by taking it from a human colony jealously squatting in the remains of an ancient alien civilization. When a self-described engineering genius sniffs at Hiroshi's spaceship design, they engage in a clash of wills that becomes an embodiment of the old adage of the perfect being the enemy of the good. When space sirens capture Umino and torture him with memories of his lifetime's failures and humiliations, Emeraldas steps in to save him, but with the insinuation that she did so by destroying someone she once called a friend.
You might be able to see by way of these examples what I mean by the story favoring archetype over character. When I first read this volume of Emeraldas, I had to ask myself, how plausible is it for a father to sacrifice his own daughter for the sake of a stranger he had only met some months before? To say that such a thing is okay in a story that also features space sirens or faster-than-light is to miss the point: when we know we are dealing with something in a story that's at least provisionally human, we expect provisionally human behavior from them. But I think the key is in how Matsumoto is more interested in showing us human desires and dreams than depicting human behavior. His real subject is how we imagine ourselves to be, rather than to depict how we actually are.
What we see when we dream
This attitude, again, is one of those things that either endears you to Matsumoto's work, or makes you reject it. I mentioned at the top of this article that it does endear me, while knowing full well it might not endear others. Some of that is just having been a fan of his material for a long time; my first encounter with the TV series incarnation of Galaxy Express 999 came when I was barely in my teens by way of a subtitled TV broadcast aired on a New Jersey UHF station in the 1980s. When you're young, imagination has precedence over experience. What seems hammy or ludicrous to an adult — especially one looking for a story that plays by adult storytelling rules — seems fitting to a younger mind. At that age, there's that much less to come between you and Matsumoto's larger-than-life-and-twice-as-mythic storytelling.
The other thing that I've seen people take umbrage with Matsumoto over is his artwork. Originally, I lumped complaints like this in with those of people saying they can't watch movies that are in black and white or not in English. But his artwork can indeed be off-putting; aside from his oddball anatomies, one of his favorite ways of showing a character's extremes of emotion is to provide us with an extreme closeup of their nostrils and upper teeth. I get accustomed to this sort of thing quickly — you have to approach any art form on its own terms, not yours — but I am not about to tell people they're wrong for finding it mannered, because let's face it, it is mannered.
One aspect of Matsumoto's art used to only register casually with me before, but now seems all the more important thematically each time I see it. It is the way Matsumoto uses one of his favorite kinds of images: a single human being, surrounded by or confronted with endless control panels and indicators, a la David Bowman in HAL 9000's central processing unit. I used to crack a smile whenever I saw one of these panels, thinking it played like a satire on the way human beings allow technology to dominate their lives. Then I remembered seeing a photo of a control panel at a nuclear power plant — it looked exactly like that — and realized this image wasn't meant to be a cute exaggeration, but rather a reiteration of a sad truth. Every single time Matsumoto uses this image, whatever human figure is in it is always dwarfed by the machinery — surrounded by it, crushed by it, pushed off into the corner by it. The people in this universe are losing out to their own technologies, but unfettered free spirits like Emeraldas (or, by extension, Umino) use technology to achieve their own ends instead of being used by it.
Thoughts like this remind me all the more of how a chief influence on Matsumoto was Kenji Miyazawa — poet, educator, and author of the Little Prince-esque all-ages fable Night on the Galactic Railroad. It takes little effort to see how Railroad influenced Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999, something Matsumoto himself has made plain, but I think now the influences run deeper than just that one work also featuring a train crossing the universe. Miyazawa was concerned with humanity's spiritual and moral development, and used Buddhist themes to inform his work and make his case for a better kind of humanity.
Matsumoto is far from a Utopian — his futures are as dystopic and cruel as they get — but he too yearns for something better, and he also insinuates the main reason things are as bad as they are is less because it is that way by nature than because mankind chooses to do precious little about it. Then along come people like Emeraldas, and Umino, to prove everyone wrong. Long may they wave.