Us Living in Fictional Cosmogonies
Part XXVII: The Winter Journey & Leiji Matsumoto
by Travis Hedge Coke
“The world is my representation.”
– The World as Will and Representation, Arthur Schopenhauer
“The bird fights its way out of the egg. The egg is the world. Whoever will be born must destroy a world.”
– Demian, Herman Hesse
“We are the chick; the world is our egg. If we don’t break the world’s shell, we will die without truly being born. Smash the world’s shell, for the Revolution of the World.”
– Revolutionary Girl Utena, Be-Papas
“The weight of a human’s existence cannot be measured by the length of the life.”
– Blank Belt Symphony, Leiji Matsumoto
“For me, all my works are one big work in a sense. When I write, I am aware of it as a single story. Therefore, I will bring it all together when I write my last story. However, if I begin to write that now, I’ll get the feeling that I’m approaching my own demise, so I don’t want to do it yet.”
– Leiji Matsumoto in interview
Yuki Kei is a young woman wearing a skull and crossbones who serves on the crew of the Arcadia, a pirate vessel in outer space. An orphan whose surname means record and stands for herself as a record of her family having existed now that they are passed, Kei is, in some stories, the last of the Arcadia crew to be arrested, the last to fall (and one of the first to rise again). In Miraizer Ban, Kei establishes the Earth as a time machine, and a time-viewing platform, because it is in constant, yet cyclical movement, and from it, we have a vantage of distorted immediacy and past in what we can see of stars so far away they may already have died.
Leiji Matsumoto will deal with time and space, in different comics, different animated works, and elsewhere, in terms of eternal returns, time circles, rings of happenings, space and time are capable of echoing other space and time, of superseding, overrunning, lapping or overlapping. The shortest distance between two points may not be the briefest nor a direct causal or correlative line.
In Blank Belt Symphony, a short comic and chapter of the revival of Galaxy Express 999, Matsumoto shows a world a direct descendent of Franz Schubert lives in constant relation and reiteration of his famous ancestor’s life and works, on a planet which defies physical laws as we know them, so that the nearer you are to the production of a sound, the quieter that sound seems.
Franz Schubert has no known direct descendent.
Over the course of the theatrical film, Arcadia of My Youth – its title a paraphrase from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “At the end of their lives, all men look back and think that their youth was Arcadia” – one of Matsumoto’s most famous lineages, the Harlock family line, parallels distant generations of Harlock men with similar, if not dead identical scars. Scars are not inherited, not in any lamarckian sense, but there can be a culturally or societally-inherited tendency to particular injuries. A family of millers or fishers or soldiers have a statistical likelihood to certain wounds. And, in the world of Matsumoto’s works, there is a tendency of generations to echo, sometimes to completely replay scenarios and elements. The universe, the cosmology, is not a cycle of a singular eternal return, but wheels in wheels in wheels or eternal circulations and re-circulations, a broad expansive village of re-circulations.
In Blank Belt Symphony, one character is attempting to live as his ancestor or as an echo enough to honor, while he and another character have separate theories on whether Maetel has a lookalike ancestor from the Seventeenth Century or is old enough to have looked identical in the middle 1600s as she does in the distant future when humanity spans the cosmos.
Over the course of various Matsumoto pieces, and spinoffs and adaptations, characters such as Maetel, Harlock, and Emeraldas are given different backgrounds, set in different time periods, sometimes set in confusing scenarios – Gun Frontier may feature a generational Harlock and Tochiro set in the Nineteenth Century and United States, or it might be an alien world modeled on the western/horse opera genre – and many of the scenarios are (seemingly) causally discontinuous. Harlock stories, Maetel stories operate on kairological time as much, if not substantially more than chronological concerns. Time and space are recorded and played out in pitches of cosmic necessity rather than the tick-tock seconds of a watch hand moving millimeters and moments each tick. And, the necessities are recurrent.
Design aesthetics blend early 20th Century airships with 18th Century pirate ships, World War 2 military vessels and futuristic starships. Land- and cityscapes play on real and imaginal architectural traditions, influencing and drawing back from the Star Wars franchise, as well as real life cities and ages. Places, things, from cars and ships to towers and huts, castles and bridges, evoke a flux and what is really time and space but flux?
“I can no longer remember how long I have wandered the dark seas of space,” Emeraldas monologues to the emptiness of space, or the ship named for her, the Queen Emeraldas, and she is not exaggerating or being absurd. There is, in essence, always a recurring Emeraldas, a Harlock, a Maetel, sometimes by birth, sometimes by guise, sometimes as only inspirational fiction.
Maetel is always a woman in a fur wrap with a black fur hat, a travel bag, ready to be companion to a soul in need of transportation and company. Except when she is not.
Harlock is a spirit of anarchic responsibility, a man’s man, a world-sized soul who sees what is consistently taken from his family, humanity. Except when he is a man-child, a soldier, a pilot, a prisoner, a hermit, or a child becoming the new Harlock. Some Harlocks are born Harlocks, some adopted in, and some adopt it for themselves.
Rather than diluting these characters with alternative takes and contradictory narratives, a genuinely mythic radiance is forged within the similarities between versions and in the discordancies. By accepting the discordancy of different artists, actors, directors having their own personal version, as well as comics in different eras or cartoons made decades apart having their own sensibilities and agendas, the characters are expanded and concretized into something closer to people than characters for whom these kind of discontinuities would only remind audiences of their artificiality. Their real life semblance is already artificial. The resonance is real.
Maetel’s dress is sometimes seen as very Russian in style. Her motifs, the visual, the costume, the train and attache case are seen as resembling accoutrement of great Russian novels and their mid-century filmic translations. Maetel is a homonym for the Russian for blizzard, while Matsumoto gives the thematic sequence that leads to her name as meta as a source for mother, connecting meta and mother with meter and then, Maetel.
Nearly all Matsumoto narratives are those of friendship. The friends can be lovers, they can be relatives, traveling companions, student and teacher, they can be customer and waitress, they can have only met moments before one of them dies. To position mother as, in many cases, a first friend or true friend, dilutes neither mother-ness or friend-ness.
As with Jack Kirby’s Fourth World and other comics, the depth of reference and semblance in Matsumoto’s work is not illusory but it would not matter if it was. Our reactions are central and ours.
Matsumoto’s Leijiverse, as it is sometimes called, is contained in our universe as a set of self-reflexive stories, and our universe is interpolated into his. The narrative tone or apparent world-philosophy of one story, one scene or character, can be completely true and fixed while being untrue in another set in the same world, maybe even featuring the same scenarios or characters.
Harlock can upbraid a young man he has taken underwing for crying when he could be pushing past grief to physical (that is, violent or productive) action, and in another story, another adult, such as Emeraldas or Maetel, can advise a very similar young man to act very differently, without any of them being philosophically wrong. Maetel’s appreciations for the tears shed in mourning is not contradictory to Harlock’s avoidance of them.
Harlock’s immaturity in one story and maturity in another, or maturity being in the eye of the nearest audience-proxy character, is never spiritually contradictory. See, also, Emeraldas’ waning or waxing maturity and focus.
Our individual or communal idea is not the same as the thing, but it is all the thing we are going to, ourselves, have. We build our thing out of, not its inherent thingness, but agglomerations of and aspirations for fragmentary but also uninterrupted-awareness of thingness.
As un-rigid as gender politics can be, once elevated past specific societies or individuals, gender is rigid. Gendering is rigid. Men are men (though some are not true men), women are women (see, men), girls are girls and boys are boys. The queer range runs from heterosexual to asexual. Sexuality, aside from a crass, almost inevitably rapey sort, is a pale shadow of admiration or love or respect, which forms far more bonds and a broader range of bonds.
The male gaze permeating the Leijiverse is one that attempts to balance itself. The most immature character, often an audience-proxy or audience-in, is young and male, usually in need of mentorship but resistant to it. The mentors who present themselves are as often women as men and the other naive or simply young characters are more often girls than boys.
Leiji Matsumoto is often the first person to credit his career to Miyako Maki, his wife. Slightly older than Matsumoto, Maki entered the manga field a few years after Matsumoto, but had quicker success. During the 1960s, Matsumoto and Maki collaborated on comics, both drawing different elements of the same panels and pages, and creating the animated The Silver Mushroom together.
Maki’s 1967 doll, Licca-chan, was in no part owned by Maki, but the doll franchise’s success, sustained for decades, brought her attention and money, which she in part used to support her husband while his solo career (or, solo with assistants; Matsumoto has always been more open to crediting assistants than many contemporaries or later mangaka). Without Maki, without their collaborations, her inspiration, her visualization techniques, and her financial support, it is unlikely that the great works we think of as the Leiji Matsumoto body of work, the canon corpus, would ever have come to be.
When passages of 1977-79’s Space Pirate Captain Harlock turn on the fear of social emasculation if a virile, confident young man shows particular emotions or serves under women, in contrast to many other male-marketed comics (my brain goes immediately to the DC Comics series, Grayson, but to stay with manga and anime, let us say Black Jack, Gundam, Macross…), the consensus in Harlock, is that if women are in the chain of command, the chain is the chain, and if a woman knows more, is more capable, or is simply in charge, that it that. She can cushion the emotional blow to this young sexist, but she does not have to coddle or step down on his behalf.
Matsumoto’s career has been one of collaboration, and his willingness to cede territory, to collude and collaborate seems to move hand in hand with his tendency to leave long works or series incomplete, to start revivals and move those to incompletion. “If I begin to write that now, I’ll get the feeling that I’m approaching my own demise.” Why would Matsumoto want to do that?
Matsumoto’s work with Maki, or with (director) Rintaro, (artist and writer) Jerome Alquié, Kaoru Shintani, or Daft Punk have shown how easily his work can be adapted, how easily it can be collaborative, without losing any essentialness. The essence of Harlock and Yuki Kei is irreducible whether they are in a heroic space adventure, a metaphysical blues horror, a war story or comedy. The basic concerns of lineage, survival, sacrifice, mentorship and love are irreducible.
The historicity (and ahistoricity) of past, future, forever is not made relative so that crimes can be excuses, horrors paves over with polite guise. Even the most militaristic of atmospheres is anti-fascist, anti-imperialist, while presenting imperialists as people, fascists as people. To be a person is not to be excused.
In this world, as ours, wanting does not always lead to achieving. Wars are not won by whoever wants to win most. And, the winners of war have, themselves, often suffered true and irrevocable losses. Wanting to achieve a goal, striving for it, is distinct from the goal’s achievement, even in how great or honorable the striving might be.
Emeraldas says, “No matter where my journey ends when my life expires, I shall have no regrets.” It is a note to us, if it is anything. We, too, who travel. We travel whether we realize it or not, as the Earth moves, time moves, bearing us.
Era and place set a tone. Scenario sets tone. People, like us, are where we hang our hat.