Leiji Matsumoto 2010 Interview

By now, Mr. Matsumoto should need no introduction, but if his work is unfamiliar to you in any way, our Leiji Matsumoto tribute page is a good place to start.

The interview was conducted on the evening of December 4, 2010 in the home of Leiji Matsumoto. It was arranged and translated by Sword Takeda. Most of the questions were gathered and asked by Tim Eldred. Others were asked by additional participants Walter Amos, Gwyn Campbell, Anton Kholodov, and Patrick Macias.

As Patrick is the editor of Otaku USA Magazine, part of the interview can also be found in the June 2011 issue.

Left to right: Walter Amos, Tim Eldred, Leiji Matsumoto, Gwyn Campbell, Anton Kholodov, Patrick Macias

Part 1: Space Battleship Yamato

Let’s start with the origins of the characters in Space Battleship Yamato. What can you tell us about them?

My younger brother’s name is Susumu, and Susumu Kodai was named after him.

I aspired to study mechanical engineering, but since our house was so poor, I gave up on that and instead turned to drawing. On the other hand, I encouraged my younger brother when he wished to join that department and said, “you must go!”

I asked our father to let him go, and I came to Tokyo with the intention of supporting his tuition. So my brother became a specialist, once the director of the Nagasaki Research Institute and now a technical officer at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries technology headquarters. Briefly, he’s the man who designed the core of the H-IIA rocket. (Points to a nearby desktop model; photo at right.)

Of course, he took all the doctorate degrees, so therefore my brother and I divided our labor and he realized the half of the dream that I could not.

Recently I designed the tour boat named Himiko, and my brother developed and reinforced the design. So it can be said that it is the ship I made with my younger brother, Susumu.

Himiko serves as a water taxi in Tokyo Bay. Get a closer look at it here.

Do you often name your characters with verbs; Susumu [go, march], Mamoru [protect], Wataru [come across], Manabu [study, learn], etc.?

No, That’s a coincidence. Many Japanese names are verbs. My real name is Akira, which means “become the sun, light or fire.” Leiji means “eternal Samurai” by the way.

I can also disclose a secret about the name of Yuki Mori [Nova], based on Miyuki Moriki, who is now a famous pianist. I used to get fan letters from her, and I took two characters out of her name.

Juzo Okita [Captain Avatar] originates from the SF writer, Juza Unno. Okita comes from the Shinsengumi member Soji Okita and means, “a ship that runs offshore.” His face was modeled on that of my father.

I can continue with the origin of the name Gamilas. It came from the Witch Kamila [Carmilla]. I added the sound mark to KA and made it GA to get “Gamilas.”

Dessler’s name combines DES [Death] and RA [Sun]. The Sun of Death. So all the character names are intentional and I always put some meaning in them.

Was Dessler’s face modeled on that of Producer Yoshinobu Nishizaki? There is a particular resemblance in the TV series before his skin changes to blue.

Are they similar? It wasn’t intentional. His sudden passing away last month was quite sensational and I was surprised, really had or have no idea what was going on.

Returning to the origin of names, concerning Harlock only, it was sort of a marching code from my childhood. There was no meaning to it, but when I was in grade school I’d walk down the road and call aloud, “Harlock, Harlock” without knowing why. Therefore, the name came out spontaneously. That was the birth of Harlock.

As for Starsha, I wanted her name to mean angel of the stars.

Back in 1974 or 75, no animators for Yamato could draw such women so I had to draw Starsha’s key animation by myself for particular episodes. The original picture I painted of Starsha, which was lent to the producer and has never been returned, was in fact a face I painted genetically.

The ancestors of my grandmother’s generation had a point of contact with Europe during the time of the Meiji Restoration, in 1860. Members of my family appeared in a photo with Europeans directly descended from Philipp Franz Von Siebold.

There were reference materials and books about it in our house, but that face came from a photograph from that time. I noticed it about 15 years ago when a friend of mine took the trouble to bring it to me from a storehouse holding artifacts of my mother’s ancestors.

I had been drawing that face since I was in high school, so genes are pretty scary.

Whether the woman in the picture with that face was a total stranger or had some relationship to my mother is a mystery, but I knew that face and was compelled to restore it. Since my brother is a scholar he suggested we have my genetics examined, but I yet insist it would better just to leave it a mystery.

(Editor’s note: learn the particulars of this story here.)

Speaking of my younger brother, when I first thought of the Wave-Motion Engine and Wave-Motion Gun, I considered the wave motion of gravity and the spiral of time, resembling waves seen from the side, and so on. I sent the theory to my brother first, and he answered that it wasn’t necessarily wrong. I took this as theoretical proof and went on to use it after it was confirmed.

There was also an opposite case, when I was asked to draw an opening and closing device for a hatch on a deep sea vessel that could be operated manually under great pressure.

I was confused by the request, so I naturally asked, “Why me, a comic artist? There must be many experts.”

“The experts would go back and forth about it,” he said, “so in this case the conclusions of a layman might be better.”

I drew as many as 13 ideas for the hatch design and left it for a year and a half. The simple result was that they used it.

Captain Harlock was scheduled to appear in the first Yamato TV series. If he had appeared, would he still have been your Harlock?

Yes, it was an unfortunate problem that Yamato‘s audience rating was very low, so the plan for 51 episodes was reduced to 26. [Editor’s note: Matsumoto himself constructed a 51-episode plan which was reduced to 39 before being further reduced by the Yomiuri TV network.] So the story stage in the Small Magellanic Cloud and Harlock’s appearance were eliminated.

Of course, I was planning to build up Captain Harlock independently, but if there was an opportunity to unveil the character, I wanted to take advantage of it as much as possible.

Harlock did appear in the first Yamato manga and novelization. Was this still your Harlock, or was it somehow different?

They are the same.

I always liked the pirate image. The skull mark appeared as a skeletal image in The Ring of the Nibelung and knights used it as the mark of immortality; “I’ll continue to fight even if I am reduced to bone.”

It continued to have an impact on fight scenes in adventure serials like Captain Blood [1935].

What is the origin of the biological mecha design of Gamilas?

They are so-called aliens from space, but even here on Earth there is a wide variety of life forms. The same could be true of a meter [viewscreen]. Besides, I had a mania for airplane meters and panels, I pictured them without the roundness of a cathode ray tube, as flat-panel LCD. [Points to the laptop computer recording the interview.] I believed technology would evolve this way and we would see something just like it.

photo by Patrick Macias

Oddly enough, those things drawn decades ago have become commonplace. For example, when I visited a huge ship at Mitsubishi Heavy Industries in Nagasaki, it had the same kind of bridge as Yamato. I asked a young engineer, “How could this be so?”

He said, “It couldn’t be helped because I watched it when I was growing up.”

I didn’t know that I had such an impact! (Laughter)

We all enjoy striking the Yamato salute. What is its origin?

As for that, I watch movies from all over the world. Different salutes are often seen in films from different countries.

Were elements in the design of the Yamato crew uniform, such as the mountain on the sleeve, inspired by the uniform of the Shinsengumi?

Yes. In addition, the Yamato arrow follows the mark of the 64th Army Air Combat Regiment, which was an excellent unit but met with a tragic death. Their fighter plane Hayabusa [Peregrine Falcon] had an arrow-shaped marking on the tail with a wing as its origin. I looked at various markings and photos as a child, and they mixed together to form such things.

Besides the design of the Shinsengumi uniform, I learned a lot about them from a Toei TV series called Shinsengumi Keppu Roku [Bloody, Stormy Chronicles of Shinsengumi, 1965].

At left: a still from Bloody, Stormy Chronicles. Learn more about the Shinsengumi’s influence on Yamato here. At right: the Nakajima Ki-43 Hayabusa, nicknamed “Oscar” by the Allies. The 64th Army Air Combat Regiment flew these in the Malaysian and Burmese theaters of World War II. The 1st squadron had a white arrow, the 2nd squadron red, the 3rd squadron yellow, and the command flight for the Regiment blue. (Special thanks to Steven R. Bierce for this data.)

Before that, a typical serialized TV drama ended with “to be continued” when it reached the most interesting part. I was disappointed, because I didn’t know if I could see the next part. Then this dramatization [based on an anthology by Ryotaro Shiba] focused on one character in each episode and that particular episode was for a particular character. The first episode to the last contributed to one big continuing story. So I learned a lot from the series and Yamato was modeled after this as well, in particular the 30-minute episodic format.

In fact, the hometown of the Shinsengumi is nearby, called Hino. They fled into Nagareyama and drifted into Hokkaido in the end. The path from Hino to Nagareyama passes near here. Itabashi, where Isami Kondo was executed, is also not far away.

I felt a great sense of intimacy and some mysterious connection to it, and it had a psychological influence on me. For example, Shinsengumi would fight to the last, even if they became scattered and understood that defeat was inevitable. They fight even if they know they will die. Their belief is unchanged. That part is determined from the beginning.

But my father said, and I also believe, that life is born to live and people are not born to die. It was drilled into me from my childhood. Therefore, when Captain Okita says in the first episode of Yamato that “a man endures humiliation and lives for tomorrow,” those are his words.

In America, Star Blazers gave most of us our first contact with Yamato, so we saw Yamato 2 before Farewell. We were impressed by Desslok’s revival when he said, “as long as I live, Gamilon lives,” and eventually came to understand the people of Earth. Was it your spirit that shone through in the TV version?

Yes. So in the next work, [The New Voyage, 1979] the producer and I got into a big fight since he liked to kill everyone and I hated it. When I create a story and a character, I think about why I’m doing it and put my whole self into it. So if the character is easily killed off, it feels to me like my child or my brother was murdered.

This is the difference between producer and creator. I actually got very angry, throwing the script away saying, “I don’t care any more,” and decided to go it alone and make my own works. I couldn’t stand by and watch it turn into a sob story about death, and I could no longer put up with the disagreement. He didn’t want to let it go, and I was tired of it.

In Yamato and other SF stories, a hero is often portrayed sacrificing himself to save the lives of his loved ones. What is your comment on stories like this in the wake of 9/11?

There will always be situations where one becomes a shield at the command of others, and it’s good if this can save human lives. However, that person must not die, either.

Another truth is that, needless to say, it’s important to save many lives. Then to work for both solutions, the only way is not to fight at all. This is my answer and solution.

Is it possible for you to write more Yamato side-stories in the future, such as Eternal Jura?

New Space Battleship Yamato [Great Yamato] was just republished about three days ago. Because this was written as a completely separate story, I’m free to publish it. Therefore, someday it could be animated or filmed.

As for this crew, the main characters will not die. They’ll live on even with gritted teeth. Some might unfortunately fall, but the heroes never die.

It is the same with Galaxy Express, to travel on an infinite journey. Even with Emeraldas and Harlock, my policy is that death is absolutely prohibited. People are born to live. Life is born to live. Only a fool would live to die. This is the most basic aspect of my work.

The story of Great Yamato has finished for the time being, but will it restart?

Yes, I’ll still do it. It’s my strange nature to keep going endlessly once I begin to write. I’ve been writing Galaxy Express continuously for 30-40 years. Eventually I want to do one big adventure with all my characters, a final curtain call. However, it will feel like it’s all over if I do it…so until I’m conscious that it will be the end, I’ll never do it.

What are your recollections about Yamato‘s music?

Yamato was blessed with its music. I thought the theme should be like the second movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, and when I issued this arbitrary order, Mr. Hiroshi Miyagawa said “very well.” The melody in the theme was different, but it somehow preserved that atmosphere.

Speaking of music, I always wanted to use Thus Spake Zarathustra in one of my works. So can you imagine how was I disappointed to see 2001? “Oh, somebody has done it already! It should have been me!” That’s what I thought then.

What do you think is Yamato‘s biggest influence on Japanese culture?

I would like it to stimulate interest in science, technology and astronomy.

And it implied that from their own point of view, each person thinks they are right. There must be some villains and opponents in movies or anime, but they have reasons for their thoughts and actions. The differences cause confrontations at first, but later it will be settled by mutual understanding. To protect and save lives, those conflicts will fade away.

Continue to Part 2: The Leijiverse

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