Monday, February 25, 2013

1978: The Year of Leiji Matsumoto

AJtheFourth is a writer for the team anime blog Altair and Vega. When she's not writing about anime or working an unfortunate retail schedule she can be found bemoaning the Red Sox and the Packers, running, painting, playing altogether too much League of Legends, and fervently wishing she owned a Bernese Mountain Dog so she could ride it like Chiyo-chan in Azumanga Daioh. Her favorite anime include Aim for the Ace!, Touch, Rose of Versailles, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Honey and Clover, and Do You Remember Love?

Initially, I had chosen the year 1978 upon noticing that one of my favorite series of all time, Aim for the Ace!, had aired in that year. Upon further inspection, it became clear that it was the second season of the shojo adaptation and not the infamous first series that saw Osamu Dezaki burst onto the anime scene. This turned out to be a fortuitous oversight, as 1978 was a breakout year for one of the most influential creators in manga and anime history: Leiji Matsumoto.

Although previous works of his had been adapted for the small screen, 1978 saw Galaxy Express 999, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, Starzinger, and of course the continuation of his first known success: Space Battleship Yamato.

Space Battleship Yamato II and Farewell Space Battleship Yamato

Space Battleship Yamato II, known to American audiences as Star Blazers: The Comet Empire, aired on October 14th, 1978 as the highly fan-anticipated sequel to the 1974 original series and more importantly, the Farewell Space Battleship Yamato movie which had aired that July. Dissatisfaction with the movie was high, as the Yamato characters met with what fans deemed to be a premature end. Space Battleship Yamato II effectively erased the outcome of the movie, allowing the story to continue. Additionally, the length of 26 episodes allowed for the series to expand on several subplots.

Although the movie aired prior to the second series, it is the series that fans consider to be the truer storyline with the movie as an alternate, non-canon retelling. Yamato II would also reunite Matsumoto and Noboro Ishiguro, who had previously directed the first Yamato series alongside its creator. Ishiguro would later go on to direct, among many other properties, the first installment of the eternally-popular Macross franchise and the movie Do You Remember Love? (an alternate retelling of that initial 1982 series) alongside Shoji Kawamori.

With the additional time to spread its story, Yamato II shines as it not only surpasses the movie that it aimed to rewrite, but the initial 1974 series as well. In spite of the fact that it chooses a happier ending for its leads than Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, Matsumoto and company handle the drama in such a way that knowledge of the outcome has no effect on one’s enjoyment of the series.

Space Pirate Captain Harlock

A few months previous to Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, another Matsumoto property, Space Pirate Captain Harlock, was animated into a 42-episode series beginning in March of 1978. Matsumoto took a more hands-off approach to this adaptation –– unlike the Yamato franchise where he did nearly everything from story writing to mechanical designs, earning his eventual directing credit—handing over the directing reins to Rintaro, who would later reunite with Matsumoto a few years down the road for the Galaxy Express 999 movie.

Where the Yamato franchise woos its audience with operatic space battles and overarching strategic maneuvers, Harlock relies on the magnetism of its titular character as he swaggers his way through the vast frontier of space. Yamato II also provides an interesting contrast in the way its protagonists rush to defend the Earth in a comparatively straightforward fight. The Earth of Harlock is a far less desirable place, overrun with bureaucrats, industry, and technology. Taking to the skies with his rag-tag crew of The Arcadia, Harlock is as much disgusted with the Earth as he is inclined to save it from its alien invaders.

Galaxy Express 999

If Farewell Space Battleship Yamato, Space Battleship Yamato II, the sci-fi retelling of Journey to the West: Starzinger, the still-airing Danguard Ace (completed in March of 1978), and Space Pirate Captain Harlock were not remarkable enough achievements within a year, 1978 was additionally the year of what is arguably Matsumoto’s most widely-known worldwide work: Galaxy Express 999.

Galaxy Express 999 is loosely based on Kenji Miyazawa’s children’s story, Night on the Milky Way Train, which saw a more direct adaptation in the 1985 film Night on the Galactic Railroad. Matsumoto was inspired by Miyazawa’s idea of a steam engine running through the stars, and his protagonist, Tetsuro, comes to share many similar qualities to that of Miyazawa’s Giovanni, the protagonist of Night on the Milky Way Train.

At a whopping 113 episodes, Galaxy Express 999 tells the story of Tetsuro and the mysterious, willowy Maetel (the embodiment of the traditionally-known Matsumoto female character design) on a trip across the galaxy aboard the legendary C-62 steam locomotive known as the Galaxy Express 999. Following his mother’s death, Tetsuro is saved by Maetel and offered a special unlimited ticket if he agrees to be her companion on board the express. The 12 year-old Tetsuro agrees, as his and his mother were attempting to earn passes for the Galaxy Express to acquire a mechanical bodies from the distant Andromeda galaxy and gain eternal life.

Night on the Milky Way Train was written shortly after Miyazawa’s sister passed away and attempts to, in Miyazawa’s own words, address the question, “What is true happiness?” Giovanni discovers, through his friendship with traveling companion Campanella and his eventual acceptance of said friend’s death, that his true happiness is found in knowing other people, regardless of the fact that they will inevitably pass on. The end of the novel—although it was published unfinished in 1934, after Miyazawa’s death in 1933—shows Giovanni vowing to be a stronger person in life, saying that Campanella will always be with him.

Tetsuro addresses his own pursuit of “true happiness” through the many accounts of people he meets in his travels to acquire a mechanic body. As one could surmise, there are many drawbacks to trading in your organic human life for a more permanent metal one, and Tetsuro speaks with many who regret the swap. Following the conclusion of Maetel’s story, Tetsuro ends up choosing his own happiness, leading to his parting with Maetel forever. One gets the sense that Maetel, although she does have her own concerns to take care if, was also assigned to Tetsuro as a means for him to eventually don the mantle of adulthood, before disappearing, much like Campanella allowed Giovanni to identify his true happiness in Night on the Milky Way Train.

The Adventures of the Little Prince

Another book dealing with the trials of becoming an adult, as well as the repercussions of becoming close to other people, is Antoine St. Exupery’s The Little Prince. I personally have great affinity for this book and when I realized that it was also in the year 1978, much like my misguided attempt to cover Aim for the Ace!, it cemented my choice of year for this project.

Unfortunately, The Adventures of the Little Prince disappointed me. Unlike Galaxy Express 999 and Night on the Milky Way Train (where the series was inspired only by the concept of the book but ended up addressing similar themes), The Adventures of the Little Prince is decidedly a step down from the book. This could be attributed to my love of the original source material, but there is a key difference from the novel: the series is solely for children. While the book explores in an incredibly heartfelt way the double-edged nature of opening up to other people, coupled with the growing pains of becoming an adult, the anime series expands on possible adventures that the little prince could have had while also keeping a few of the key meetings from the book. It’s fun to watch, but is ultimately lacking when compared to its source.

That being said, I also know that I would have found this utterly charming had I been old enough to watch it when it aired in America on Nickelodeon in 1985. The whimsical nature of St Exupery’s original setting lends itself well to episodic children’s television, along with the more basic life lessons that the series chooses to impart.

Ringing Bell

Continuing along the path of children’s anime, 1978 was host to one of the more horrifying children’s movies I’ve ever had the honor of watching: Ringing Bell. Produced by Sanrio (known for unleashing the Hello Kitty brand upon the world) during their attempt to become the next big-budget animation studio, this movie begins with Chirin, a baby lamb, and his mother living their pleasant life on a farm. When Chirin’s mother is killed by a wolf, he swears to avenge her death.

This movie is simply horrifying, and I say that in the most complimentary way. Those who think that nothing could be more depressing than the death of Bambi’s mother in the 1945 animated classic have hardly seen the likes of Ringing Bell. The movie is dark in both melodramatic and nuanced ways, with the key takeaway being how hardship begets a twisted ferocity as the audience watches Chirin’s transformation from cuddly Disney creature to murderous ram. To top it all off, this movie ends in the most depressing way that it possibly could. Where The Adventures of the Little Prince attempts to impart uplifting wisdom, Ringing Bell tears any preconceived notions of what one would expect from “children’s anime” and kicks you in the teeth while doing so.

Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo

Also kicking, and punching, his way into 1978 was Arsene Lupin III in his first animated feature film. Initially titled Lupin III, it was given the name The Mystery of Mamo or Secret of Mamo from two of its eventual four English language dubs. Based on the Monkey Punch manga of the same name, the Lupin III franchise had already seen two television adaptations, the second of which was currently airing at the time.

Mystery of Mamo is a high-energy mash-up of a Bond flick and the original manga, with a long list of exotic locales, both real and imagined, for Lupin III and crew to explore. Director Sôji Yoshikawa (who also was a screenwriter for Future Boy Conan and Matsumoto’s Danguard Ace) partnered with "pink film" screenwriter Atushi Yamatoya who had also worked on the cult hit 1967 yakuza film Branded to Kill. Whether it was Yamatoya’s influence, or an attempt to make everything bolder and edgier for the silver screen, Mystery of Mamo has hardly the camaraderie found in the 1979 Castle of Cagliostro or other subsequent Lupin III films and series, and there’s a sense that, although Lupin & Co. get along famously one moment, they may very well attempt to stab each other in the back the next. This, along with the surreal landscapes, colorful imagery and character designs, and wonky plot that only works the less you pay attention to it, makes this movie a joy to watch.

Future Boy Conan

As previously mentioned, while Mystery of Mamo arrived on Japanese movie screens, the second series of Lupin III was already airing weekly on television. The show was a continuation of the first series, which in its latter episodes featured renowned directors Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata (who would later go on to found Studio Ghibli). These two are frequently cited as the influences behind the Lupin III franchise’s turn from wacky-but-violent to more cartoonish and family-friendly antics, changing Lupin into a more lovable gentleman thief. While Mystery of Mamo returned to the manga’s roots under Yoshikawa, Miyazaki and Takahata partnered with the director/screenwriter in 1978’s Future Boy Conan.

Future Boy Conan marks Miyazaki’s directorial debut and shares common threads with the myriad of movies that Miyazaki would come to write, direct, and produce at Studio Ghibli –– namely the conflict between industry and nature. Loosely based on an Alexander Key novel, The Incredible Tide, Conan follows its titular protagonist in the post-apocalyptic 2000s on various adventures, culminating in conflicts between the peace-loving High Harbor and the aptly named city of Industria.

The themes are solid, the characters charming, and the narrative fairly tight; however, one of the most fun aspects of Future Boy Conan is watching Conan, Jimsy, and Lana go on adventures. Where The Adventures of the Little Prince suffers in expanding on its original novel, Future Boy Conan excels in both dispensing its core themes and being a fun to watch.


While 1978 may have been Leiji Matsumoto’s year, the other titles released alongside his creations are certainly nothing to sneeze at, and most add to various road maps for prominent anime creators like Miyazaki and Takahata. I highly recommend any of the anime series or movies mentioned here (aside from The Adventures of the Little Prince), both for their influences on anime as a whole and for simply being interesting to watch. Above all, watch Ringing Bell. You can thank me later.


  1. I think I had a good sense of the non-Yamato Leiji stuff happening that year, but not of the fact that even Yamato was playing big time. It was truly a massive time for Mr. Matsumoto!!

  2. You forgot Daitarn 3!!

  3. Wheres Takarajima?

  4. A couple of points of order if I may:

    1. While there's no question whatsoever of Matsumoto's massive work on Yamato, properly speaking it's not 'his' Yamato. Nishizaki is/was creator and owner. The post-Star Wars success of Yamato had a direct effect of getting him more work in animation. Also a consideration to be mindful of is Toei was seemingly having issues with Go Nagai at that point and they were frantically casting about for what we would call today a new 'I.P. generator'. Blah blah blah.

    2. The popularity of Arrivederci, Yamato (sorry, I just have to stick with the old romantic title, which makes it so distinctive) vs. Yamato 2 is one of the major polarizing issues in Japan, or so it seems. There's a hard split in fandom there, those that feel 'Arrivederci' properly and correctly ends the story of Yamato (per Nishizaki's original thoughts when he made it), and those that embrace Yamato 2 joyfully, wanting the ship, the characters, the very universe created to continue unto eternity. This latter spirit is generally what American fans feel, as most of us were exposed to Star Blazers. I would not, in any way, state "(Japanese)fans consider (Yamato 2) to be the truer storyline with the movie as an alternate, non-canon retelling".

    That post-Star Wars period was a pretty key time. :)