This article is the first in a series whose goal is to observe how the representation of Outer Space in anime has evolved throughout time.
Through the analysis of the genesis of fundamental tropes, we aim to achieve a better understanding and contextualization of this aspect of Japanese Science Fiction.
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Leiji Matsumoto is one of the most important science-fiction creators in Japan, if not in the entire world. To understand why, one may turn to his personal life, evocative art, or unique inspirations. I want to offer a slightly different perspective: focusing mainly on the animated adaptations of Matsumoto’s work, I will resituate them in the context of Japanese science-fiction of the 1960s and 1970s. Doing so will show what Matsumoto brought on to SF narratives in Japan: on the one hand, a new representation of space, and on the other, a new, central concept: roman (ロマン).
To begin with, it is necessary to briefly explain what I mean by roman since this is a word most English-speaking viewers may not be familiar with. The term carries with it multiple connotations, such as an abbreviation of “romanticism” or the French word for a novel (roman) which we find in the word “roman album“. But the relevant meaning here is inspired from the English “romance”, as in a heroic or epic tale, often told in cycles such as the Arthurian romance – or the Wagnerian cycles Matsumoto so often referenced.
In Matsumoto’s manga and their anime adaptations, roman works on multiple levels: the atmosphere of the works themselves, generally subsumed under the category of “Space Opera”, which itself convokes the image of dramatic, extraordinary stories. Roman is also a moral ideal that characters either embody or pursue – in that sense, its meaning would be closer to “bravery” or “sense of adventure”. In other words, roman is both a generic and narrative element, fact and aspiration, reality and fiction. Space, as a futuristic “frontier” or “unknown” that needs to be explored or conquered, is the ultimate place for roman to flourish. However, before explaining how it does so, it is necessary to go back a bit on how space was represented before Matsumoto came onto the scene.
The outside and the extraterrestrial
Outer space, in that it represents that which is outside of Earth – of our natural environment as human beings – is perhaps one of the key symbols of what makes the science-fiction genre what it is. In fact, the two figures that immediately come to mind when thinking “science-fiction” are probably the robot and the alien. These figures may be incarnated in two iconic franchises in Japan: Gundam (or any mecha, really) and Ultraman. Although Japanese animation, in particular, is commonly associated with the first stereotype – that of the mecha or giant robot – space has naturally been a recurring motif in its narratives. A quick survey of 1960’s anime titles seems to show that outer space was an omnipresent motif: names such as Space Patrol Hopper, Space Boy Soran, or Space Ace were everywhere. In other words, Japanese science-fiction of the time (at least the kind that was aired on TV) seems to have been obsessed with space.
However, unlike American science-fiction and space opera, which developed alongside the Cold War and the US space program, Japanese SF’s historical and cultural situation is quite different. As a country defeated in WWII and under the tutelage of the US, postwar Japanese culture couldn’t experience or express the same penchant for (imperial/ideological) expansion that the US did. However, insofar as space represents “the outside” – outside of Earth, outside of national borders – it functions as a particularly good canvas to project whatever aspirations or frustrations work inside a given culture.
Then, what one immediately notices in 60s Japanese SF is the absence of two major genres or motifs: space opera/exploration on the one hand and alien invasion (War of the Worlds-style) on the other. However, aliens are everywhere. Outside of animation, Ultraman is a good indicator of how space and its inhabitants were represented in fiction. Earth is definitely a place that aliens come to, sometimes with invasion in mind, like the iconic Baltan-seijin. But that’s a one-way ticket: aliens arrive on Earth, sometimes they’re sent back into space, but never does Ultraman or his comrades go to space themselves. In other words, Earth and humankind are in a position of passivity, only able to defend themselves on their own ground. Ultraman himself, humankind’s best ally or weapon, is not from Earth: he is an alien that has merged with a human.
It would be overly simplistic to read this as a one-to-one analogy with real-world Japan, but it seems that the implicit meaning within Ultraman‘s setting is twofold. First, it is that violence is always defensive – war is not an option. Two, both danger and salvation come from the outside. And this “outside” is, in Ultraman‘s worldbuilding, outer space. And because we never actually see it, this “outside” remains undetermined – a completely negative concept that can only be defined as “what isn’t Earth”.
Early SF anime did directly represent space and send its characters there, probably because it was technically simpler to show it than on live-action TV. But even then, the conceptualization of outer space as a negative – as the extraterrestrial – stands. A good example would be Tôei’s 1965 series Rainbow Sentai Robin. It doesn’t include “space” in its title, but the first arc of the show is dedicated to a team of cyborg superheroes fighting off an alien invasion – or an attempted one, as the villain-of-the-week structure naturally makes the invasion a series of small-scale operations. The invaders are humanoid, and their planet is but a second Earth – but an authoritarian one, whereas our planet is ruled by the UN. As is customary in Japanese SF of the time, national borders have become irrelevant – there are no references to the Cold War geopolitical situation that one may find in Western, especially American SF. Once again, we see that Earth is envisioned as a unified, peaceful place. In such a setting, conflict must necessarily come from outside: in a world without national borders, this “outside” is necessarily extraterrestrial.
This fundamentally xenophobic state of affairs is not limited to the representation of space. Although War was a prominent subject in Japanese popular culture, such as cinema (see Kihachi Okamoto’s movies, especially The Battle of Okinawa) and manga (through the genre of Senki Mono, “war stories” about the Pacific war that often glorified the Imperial Japanese Navy and presented Japan as a victim of the war), anime at the time would not frontally represent war or interstate conflicts. The State itself was not a relevant category anymore. If we move towards the 70s and take a quick look at Gô Nagai’s work, we see the same structure repeated: in Mazinger Z, Dr. Hell hides on the moon and uses technology from Antiquity; in Grendizer, the Vegan are from another planet; in Getter Robo, the Dinosaur Empire hides within the Earth. Whether the menace comes from the past, outer space, or inside our own planet, it is always an “other” that is outside of traditional national or cultural boundaries.
This unspoken taboo on the representation of war (even though Mazinger Z can be quite violent and directly references Nazi Germany) can easily be traced back to uncertainty or awkwardness towards Japan’s recent imperialist and militarist past. Giant robots do not only symbolize the country’s aspiration to technical modernity; they also represent its inability to face head-on the reality of war. It would not be until Mobile Suit Gundam that this restriction would be broken and that mechas’ implicit nature as mass-produced, State-sponsored, military weapons would be unveiled. But this was only possible because, before Gundam, another work had broken the dam and made war an object of entertainment: that was Space Battleship Yamato.
Roman as national myth: Space Battleship Yamato
As I mentioned above, Earth’s passivity in 60s Japanese SF can be read not only as a fear of invasion (that would be similar to the fear of invasion in 50s US SF) but also as a reaction to the geopolitical and cultural situation of Japan as a defeated nation. This “defeatism” rooted in postwar Japanese culture revolved around an apparent rejection of Imperial Japan’s values – among which were heroism, self-sacrifice, and the sense of adventure, all key characteristics of roman. Therefore, it is not surprising if, for Matsumoto, recovering roman was synonymous with reclaiming Japanese history. No work is more symbolic of this than Space Battleship Yamato.
Yamato‘s initial setting – that of Earth being pushed to the brink of destruction by an extraterrestrial race – may seem to conform to the framework of the 60s. But there were two notable differences. The first was a sense of both decay and urgency: in Yamato, humankind is in its last days. This fear of radical extinction is similar to the situation of Japan at the end of WWII, where Imperial propaganda claimed that the Japanese people would have to fight to the bitter end on their homeland and were even ready to face annihilation to avoid defeat. The other is that, rather than taking a passive stance, humanity would fight back: the conflict wouldn’t take place on Earth or in its immediate vicinity, but far in space, as humans would have to go out to the other side of the galaxy to recover means to save the planet. And the thing that would carry them there was a WWII Japanese battleship whose name was an ancient and poetic designation of Japan: Yamato.
That Yamato is a metaphor for national reconstruction is no mystery. Of course, the very image of this is the titular space battleship. It is a materialization of roman in at least two aspects. The first is the fascination (not to say fetishism) exerted by machines and weapons, served by the series’ hard SF angle – one rather rare in Matsumoto’s overall body of work. One of the recurring sequences of the initial anime series and all “Leijiverse” anime adaptations is the spaceship speeding towards the camera and flying alongside it. Such moments are quintessential examples of fetishistic visual pleasure: not only is this a prime case of complex and competent animation that requires a lot of skill to maintain the fluidity of the movement and the proportions of the spaceship, but it is also a display of the machines themselves, as the camera lingers on the ship that is flying by. As a weapon, the spaceship expresses power, but as a means of transportation – over the seas of Earth or those of space – it represents the ability to go beyond borders and frontiers, to explore and penetrate the unknown.
The other dimension is, of course, that of national history – or rather, its reconstruction into national mythology. The Yamato was one of the biggest warships ever built but never used to its full capacity by the Japanese Navy and sank without having won Japan any major victories. It is because of that a symbol of frustration, of wasted potential and resources – material and human, as many youths were absurdly killed during the war. In that perspective, putting the Yamato back in service and sending it out into space is a way to make amends for Japan’s past, to redeem the country of all the lives it sacrificed. In mecha anime, this theme was implicit, visible in the relationship between the hero and his father/grandfather, who handed him the robot. Yamato makes the generational message explicit, as Captain Okita is the spiritual father and leader of the Yamato’s crew who hands out the future to the younger generations through his death at the end of the show. Okita, a military officer, lived a life of conflict; by being unable to see Earth once again, he leaves the task of reconstruction to his successors.
Roman in Yamato, therefore, cannot be understood without the historical and ideological references to Imperial Japan. The story’s epic scale corresponds to that of an imagined, idealized (colonial) empire and to the elation that comes from conquest. However, Yamato is not an (overtly) imperialist work: it tries to give those feelings and values a new sense of purpose. It is not because they led Japan to defeat that they are to be negated: put in a new context, and subsumed in the positive concept of roman, these ideas can pull the Japanese out of defeatism and inertia and help them find a new dynamism for reconstruction and exploration. With dreams of empire being shattered, what is there to explore, one might ask? – Space, envisioned as a new frontier.
Roman as heroism: Space Pirate Captain Harlock
Two images drive Matsumoto’s space operas: that of the sea and that of the Wild West. The fact that some of Matsumoto’s early adventure manga (after the first part of his career as a shôjo manga artist) are honest-to-goodness Westerns, or SF stories in Western settings, provides a good insight into his overall work. Yamato‘s ideological discourse, which I outlined above, is a fairly obvious one; but before that, Matsumoto would displace all of those values – adventure, bravery – in a completely different universe, that of the American myth of the frontier. There is no contradiction, as the American imagination was but a mediation for Matsumoto to build and express what he must have felt were typically Japanese values. Just as gekiga artists like Sanpei Shirato reinterpreted Japanese medieval history through a Marxist lens, Matsumoto turned to a foreign setting to reconstruct national ideas.
In the Western, the concept that may come the closest to the values of roman is that of the pioneer: the exceptional individual who faces danger goes out in the wilderness and pushes back the frontier. Matsumoto reproduced this trope, in a conception of the epic that is, once again, wildly different from that of Shirato and the gekiga artists.
In Shirato’s Marxist lens, the individual hero is but an archetype: the product of complex social and historical forces that they either accomplish or try to overturn. In that framework, anyone could be a hero since everyone is the product of those forces, and the real protagonist of the stories (and of History) is the People. On the other hand, Matsumoto is an individualist: history is driven not by impersonal currents but by exceptional individuals who are brave enough to challenge the status quo of their own decadent societies. Their exceptional will is precisely what is contained in the concept of roman.
Matsumoto’s work that best embodies this version of history as driven by great men is Harlock. Harlock is an iconic figure, especially thanks to his design, unique in Matsumoto’s very repetitive character art and dark, melancholic personality. With his mysterious past and quest for liberty, he is a quintessential romantic hero.
As such, he is also a good catalog of what virtues Matsumoto expects from his characters. This is especially apparent not in Matsumoto’s manga, but the TV anime adaptation of Harlock – what one loses in proximity to Matsumoto himself is gained in the clarity of the characterization and worldbuilding. In the anime, Harlock and the sense of adventure and bravery that he embodies come into conflict against two forces: the extraterrestrial Mazone and the Earth population itself.
Let us first stop on the Earth, not a crumbling planet like in Yamato, but instead a prosperous, futuristic, and happy planet – or rather, a planet softened by its happiness. Indeed, not only does the Earth government reject Harlock both as an individual and symbol, but it also refuses to hear any warning concerning the impending alien invasion. The planet and its inhabitants are portrayed as decadent and divorced from real-life, a situation made even more dangerous by the presence of an enemy from within, the Mazone spies. Of course, this complete loss of alertness is a loss of roman: Earthlings are unable to go out into space; they don’t even look towards it. It is only at the end of the series after Earth has withstood a direct attack and mostly been destroyed that its population, with Harlock as its hero, can once again turn towards a future of adventure. At the end of Harlock, we then find the exact same ideological structure as in Yamato, that is, a fantasy of rebuilding and rebirth: the planet is left to its children who, driven by the tutelar figure of the pirate-adventurer, will bloom once again.
This political/historical vision runs parallel to a certain view of masculinity. Earthlings are vain, childish, and disconnected from reality; from their behavior to their design, they run counter to what “real men” should be like. On the other hand, the real enemy, the extraterrestrial Mazone, are all women – foreign, cunning, and dangerous. Harlock stands against both and embodies idealized masculinity: tall and muscular, adventurous and fearless; he never shows his emotions but dissimulates the depth of his intellect behind an ominous silence. It is only alongside him that women and “manchildren” find their appropriate place: Yattaran, the first mate of the Arcadia, is hung up on plastic models – but these are but the expression of his own roman, as he is fascinated by war machines. When the time comes, he is able to fight alongside his captain, just like the female members of the crew, Yuki and Miime.
Roman, adventure and coming-of-age
To stay on the topic of gender for a bit more, female characters in Matsumoto’s work fulfill another obvious role: it is that of mothers as mediums opening to a new world – the new world of space. The prime example of this is Galaxy Express 999 and the figure of Maetel. She is the one who takes Tetsurô inside the Galaxy Express and, through it, is the one who leads him towards space. But she also occupies the body of Tetsurô’s mother, blurring the line between self and other, known and foreign, relationships inside and outside of the family.
Through this “blurring” operation, Maetel, of course, occupies a space easily invested by psychoanalytical analysis. Galaxy Express 999 is fundamentally a coming-of-age narrative in which the issue of sexuality, implicit or explicit, is central. Maetel embodies and problematizes the basic outline of the Freudian Oedipal complex: in a way, she is Tetsurô’s mother – but in another, she is not. Tetsurô’s love for her must therefore be ambiguous, and Maetel must necessarily leave Tetsurô because this ambiguity cannot be solved by any other means than that of trauma.
The traumatic dimension is visible in the transition between two animated versions of the story: the movies Galaxy Express 999 and Farewell Galaxy Express 999. After Maetel has left him on Earth at the end of the first movie, Tetsurô is still obsessed. The event that kickstarts the second movie’s plot is the possibility for Tetsurô to meet Maetel again, somewhere far off in space.
The ambiguity of Maetel’s identity is one of the things that drive Galaxy Express 999: her identification with Tetsurô’s mother has her bringing him back to his (traumatic) past, but she is also the trigger for his adventure, the one who opens a new future for him. Because of Tetsurô’s youth, he does not instantly represent or carry roman: he needs to be sent into space and meet adult figures who will act as examples. As a coming-of-age narrative, Galaxy Express 999, therefore, offers a very different vision from either Yamato or Harlock: roman is not embodied in a particular history or individual, but it is first and foremost an experience one must go through.
Once again, space is the essential setting for roman to flourish. Far more than in Yamato or Harlock, space is presented as infinite. The number and diversity of planets Tetsurô and Maetel visit seems to be endless, and each planet is the occasion to experience different ways of living and seeing. In that framework, roman takes on a new meaning: not only is it the ability to leave one’s home and go out into the unknown – space – it also entails opening oneself to the diversity that this infinity offers. This is the meaning of Tetsurô’s quest to obtain an immortal mechanical body to avenge his mother at first and then turn towards the destruction of machines and their promise of immortality.
Indeed, Tetsurô’s adventure is an experience both of the absence of boundaries (space as endlessness) and of their existence, through the ultimate boundary incarnated by death. Death is itself an unknown, and Galaxy Express 999 reveals that refusing to face it is itself cowardice, just another avatar of the decadence already evoked for Harlock. The difference here is that this decadence isn’t just a matter-of-fact: we come to discover it, just like Tetsurô. The coming-of-age structure and Tetsurô’s youth aren’t just narrative strategies to help us share his perspective: they are also thematic prerequisites, as Tetsurô himself is youth, vitality, and an opening towards the future. This promise that he embodies is that of life itself, understood as the antithesis to the mechanical: roman as freedom and spontaneity against determinism.
Matsumoto’s work is one of aspiration, heroism, and adventure. While one may believe that such ideas are central to science-fiction as a genre, Matsumoto’s twist made them unique. First, there is the setting of space and all it carries with it in terms of representation and values. But it is also possible to set Matsumoto against the futurism and humanism of contemporary artists such as Osamu Tezuka and Shôtaro Ishinomori: on a surface level, Matsumoto seems to share their vision and fear of a mechanized future in which humanity has been lost.
However, Matsumoto’s humanism is quite different: as explained, it is fundamentally expressed through exceptionalism. For Matsumoto, the leap into the future cannot be made without an understanding of the past: history as driven by great men. Individuals are first in Matsumoto’s narrative, but that is because they carry specific values: they are moral examples whose sense of duty and bravery are meant to inspire the reader and spectator. This “moralistic” dimension explains the choice of the epic register and the different shapes of roman – and also the choice of SF, as the future is envisioned as a realm of infinite possibilities.
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