I was sorry to hear that acclaimed Japanese manga artist and anime creator Leiji Matsumoto had passed away on February 13th at the age of 85.
Matsumoto first worked professionally as an artist in 1954, but it wasn’t until the 1970s that he found acclaim, first for his work on the anime Space Battleship Yamato in 1974 and then for his creation of the popular manga series Space Pirate Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 in 1977.
The universe that Matsumoto conceived & designed was populated by a colorful, dynamic cast of characters: the swashbuckling freedom fighter Captain Harlock, his associate & fellow space buccaneer Queen Emeraldas, her enigmatic sister Maetel, and the young orphan Tetsuro Hoshino who travels with Maetel on the outer space locomotive train known as the Galaxy Express.
Matsumoto’s stories were space opera, and his distinctive design sensibilities are what would later come to be known as steampunk. In the retro sci-fi / space Western future that he conceived, Matsumoto’s characters frequently found themselves fighting against totalitarian forces, be they human-ruled dystopian regimes, alien invaders, or cyborg tyrants who sought to transform the galaxy in their image.
I first discovered Matsumoto’s work via the Galaxy Express 999 animated movie which was released in 1979. I vaguely recall seeing it as a child in the early 1980s on HBO, and I eagerly purchased it when it was at last released on VHS in the United States in 1996. The sequel Adieu, Galaxy Express was also released on video soon after. I really enjoyed both movies. In the early 2000s the four part serial Harlock Saga and the prequel Maetel Legend, the later of which told the origins of Maetel and Emeraldas, were released on DVD, and I got those, as well.
Matsumoto’s characters have, of course, appeared in comic books, movies and animated television series produced in Japan, but they have been popular enough to occasionally have new stories created for an English-speaking market. In the early 1990s American publisher Malibu Comics released several Captain Harlock series written by Robert W. Gibson and drawn by manga-inspired artists Ben Dunn & Tim Eldred. I found several of those comics in the back issue bins after I became a fan of Matsumoto’s work. More recently in 2021 Ablaze Publishing released a six issue Space Pirate: Captain Harlock miniseries by Matsumoto and French creator Jerome Alquie.
Leiji Matsumoto’s character & designs were truly memorable, his characters simultaneously romantic & larger than life and grounded in humanity, his stories a deft blend of dynamic action & poetic, philosophic contemplation. He will be missed by his legion of fans worldwide.