Leiji Matsumoto essay, 2013

Countless books have been published by and about Leiji Matsumoto, exploring his unique creative legacy (see a large collection of them here). As his career moved through some very impressive anniversaries (he turned 80 in 2018), retrospectives appeared with greater frequency. One such book was Leiji Matsumoto Creative Note, a paperback from KK Bestsellers published the year he turned 75.

Each chapter of this book focused on a favorite manga title with an accompanying essay of stories related to the making of that title. The Space Battleship Yamato chapter is presented here. It repeats several of the anecdotes found in other interviews and essays, but there are always additional details and new nuggets that make every article worth your time.


Animation has spread the wings of imagination in the world of science fiction manga!

The Japanese battleship Yamato, flown into space as a spaceship. Bombs that destroy planets. The time had come for me to visualize a number of science-fiction ideas that I’d had in my mind for a long time. In 1974, Space Battleship Yamato was born.

With Otoko Oidon, I had no hesitation in drawing manga. I had a sense of mission and purpose, and most of the characters were based on my own experiences. I was able to take it on with a sense of calmness and composure, “grounded” in my own experience. I was up for the challenge.

Some time after the serialization of Otoko Oidon was finished, I was assigned to write Space Battleship Yamato. This was in 1974. The request came from Bouken-o [Adventure King], published by Akita Shoten. (The serialization started in the November issue).

The plan for the anime was being developed by Yoshinobu Nishizaki, and a TV version had been decided. I skimmed through the proposal he brought with him, but it was very difficult to draw as a manga as it was. I asked him if it would be okay if I rewrote the original story, and he said, “Do whatever you want.” So I accepted the offer and rewrote the whole thing. That’s why some parts of it are completely different from the original draft.

My dream of creating animation had come true, but the Battleship Yamato, of all things? To be honest, I was a bit nervous. If possible, it should not be a war story. I wanted to start with a science fantasy like the later Galaxy Express 999.

Obviously, I needed to be prepared to use the name Yamato to describe it. Due to the nature of its historical background, I knew I had to be very careful. It was a work in which the author’s attitude and personality would come to the fore. I felt that this was a test of my own qualities.

If you look at the history of the world, you can see how the Japanese military, represented by the battleship Yamato, has influenced the people of many countries. It was a story that was also related to the history of our own family.

Yamato is not a story of a hero of the distant past. It is a very familiar theme, and death haunts every part of it. It was a heavy burden for me to draw a story that deals with death. The pain of death can only be understood by those who have experienced the loss of a close relative or loved one. Until the death of my sister, I too had no real sense of it.

Later, in Galaxy Express 999, a mother has a miscarriage and her child is not born. Tetsuro says, “If I had been there then, I would have done anything for her. If she had been born, I would have done anything for her, no matter how poor she was.”

Ever since I faced the death of one of my relatives who was younger than me, I could no longer laugh at the idea of people dying. Before that, I used to laugh at how many people died. But now, it was outrageous. I wondered how the families of the dead would feel. I had a hard time even talking about it, let alone laughing.

The story of the Battleship Yamato was told to bereaved families who had lost loved ones in the war, to the bereaved families of other countries, and to the bereaved families of the world. It was painful to imagine how the families of other countries would feel. So I decided to make Yamato not only a battle drama, but also a lyrical story of a great voyage on the ocean of the universe.

When I started working on Yamato, I realized once again that my past experience and knowledge would be of great value. I tried to use some of the scientific terms and knowledge I knew, such as warp theory and Wave-Motion Gun, to add depth to the manga.

The “warp theory” considers time as a wave. But the person in charge complained that he didn’t understand it at all. So I tried to explain it graphically. To be precise, there is a theory similar to warp called teleportation. Teleportation is an instantaneous movement through space, while warping is a leap through time.

Time machines and time travel phenomenae are actually present in the universe right now. The stars that we see are light from billions of years ago. We can take pictures of these stars, but we don’t know if they are actually there or not. If we don’t call this a time machine, what do we call it? It is a great mechanism of the universe that is beyond the reach of human knowledge.

Even today’s foreign science fiction movies depict ripples when there is a warp. The first time I used a computer to create a warp was in a film called Mirror Array, which was made at the Tsukuba Science and Technology Exhibition in 1985. For the first time, we used a computer to draw ripples spreading across the universe during a warp. Warp theory is now commonplace in movies. I thought that I might be the first person to introduce the warp theory in the world. After The Tale of Inkintamushi [told in a previous manga], it was a “world’s first.”

The Wave-Motion Gun comes from the “cosmic wave-motion theory” that I came up with long before I drew Yamato. I first grasped this concept when I was in the sixth grade of elementary school, when I read A Journey Through the Universe. [Translator’s note: original text does not specify the format of this story.]

Let’s think of the universe as a balloon. The universe inside the balloon is a closed universe. If you poke it in one spot, won’t the wave spread through the whole universe? This is the idea. In order to put this in a manga, I asked my younger brother, who was in the graduate school of Kyushu University’s Mechanical Engineering Department at the time, to verify it on a computer.

“Is there any error in the cosmic wave theory?”

“It’s not wrong. But be careful. You can go to the future, but you can’t go back to the past.”

I thought about it further. In a closed universe, wouldn’t it be possible to go to the future if we consider the past to be the most distant future? In other words, where the wheel of time touches, we can go to both the past and the future.

Later, when I dedicated a copy of Captain Harlock to the memory of my cat, Mi, I thought to myself, “I pray that you and I will gather again where the wheel of time touches.”

In the case of Yamato, the origin goes back to “cosmic wave theory.”

Yamato is also based on personal experiences. Not my own, strictly speaking, but my father’s experience of losing a subordinate. In the first episode, there is a scene in which Captain Okita apologizes to Susumu Kodai for the loss of his brother. “Why didn’t you bring my brother home?” He can only apologize. This was exactly my father’s experience.

The image of the character itself is just like my father. As a captain, he is also the head of the family. That’s why when I draw him, I can’t help but think of him as a father.

While I was working on Yamato, I found an old photo of my father. He was probably in his early thirties, and it was from his pilot days. My father’s face, with his beard and sharp eyes, looks much older than the faces of people in their thirties today. He also had the face of a samurai. Unfortunately, my face is much paler than his.

When my relatives saw Yamato, they all said, “That’s father!” That is how much Captain Okita and my father resemble each other.

As my father used to say, “We are born to live, not to die. This became the main theme of Yamato.

There is an interesting story related to photography: Starsha, who appears in Yamato, became a model without knowing it. She resembles Philipp Siebold‘s granddaughter.

My mother’s parents live next door to a temple, and the son at the temple was my classmate in the first grade. Just recently, he called me on the phone and said, “Matsumoto, we found it!”

He sent me a picture of a woman. When I saw the silver plate photograph, it looked exactly like the woman I had drawn. I had been trying to draw a face like hers for a long time. In fact, all the women I draw look like her. It’s not just her beauty, it’s the frame, the strong atmosphere, the kind but stern eyes. Everything about her was the same.

My ancestors must have thought she was beautiful when they saw her. Isn’t it possible that the feelings of my ancestors, who admired the form of her face, have been passed down to me, the fifth generation?

The photo was taken with her husband, who was standing beside her. When I saw the sword he was holding by his side, my eyes lit up. It just so happened that the sword now belongs to me. When I looked closer at the photo, I saw that it was white with brass European-style decorations on both sides. It is a rare sword. I bought it a few years ago when I wandered into a local antique store. The owner of the store recommended it to me and I bought it. He said, “It’s a nice sword,” but I didn’t pay much attention because the price was so low.

The woman’s face may have once been reflected in the sword. It is a wonder that I now have that sword. I couldn’t help but gasp.

Of course, hers was not the only face I was looking for. She is a cross with Marianne Holt, the heroine of the movie Marianne of My Youth, which I saw in my school days. The portrait of Marianne was striking, and the combination of her beauty and my own hopes seemed to have been made a mark on my adolescent mind. Whether it’s Starsha or Maetel, the women I draw are influenced by my ancestors and Marianne Holt.

The heroine of Yamato is a character named Yuki Mori. She also has a model, but I have never seen her face. Her name is Miyuki Moriki. She was a music student in Okayama, and she used to write me letters when I was working on Otoko Oidon. Her letters were written in the third person, in the style of a diary: “Ms. Moriki did something today.” In the end, we never met.

When I was deciding on a name for my heroine, I removed one syllable each from her first and last names and came up with Yuki Mori.

When I was watching TV one day, I saw a pianist named “Miyuki-san”. I don’t know if she was the girl in the letter, but she was about the same age as me, and she probably would have changed her last name after marriage. I thought, “She must be the one.” I bowed to her and said, “Thank you very much.”

The Yamato TV anime, which started almost at the same time as the manga series, was a heavy weight on me, but apart from that, it was still a happy story. Thirteen years earlier, I had delusions of grandeur about founding a production company that could rival Disney. I bought cels and film with my meager income and started to work on things, but I realized that I could not do it alone. The dream had come true without me taking on any financial responsibility. How could I not be happy?

Here’s how the anime relates to my original work. First, I set up the characters, mecha, and scenes. Then I wrote a simple plot and asked the scriptwriter to expand it. When I got it back, I went over it again. The last step was to draw a storyboard. We had an animation director, so I didn’t have to calculate the screen time. I had to decide the composition and everything else by myself.

One of the quirks of my storyboards was that I often overlapped people. I heard that the staff had a hard time because they had to be drawn from an unusual angle. I couldn’t leave these scenes to others. I had to do more than a third of the work myself. In particular, I drew Starsha and her sister myself, including the layout drawings.

I was getting more and more excited. I didn’t intend to draw space as it was often depicted in manga. I was obsessed with drawing it as depicted in the technical books that I had been looking at seriously since I was a child.

The universe is a world full of energy, light, and matter, and it is alive. I even specified the paint for the cels by myself. I said, “Use Sakura Matte blue. It’s the only one that will work.” Sakura Matte is a watercolor paint used by elementary school students. “Don’t make a mistake,” I reminded the staff.

These paints have a good “shedding” effect. In other words, the reaction of light on film is good. This is something I learned from experience when I was experimenting in a boarding house. In normal animation, when you paint the backgrounds, you use poster colors. However, they contain white particles that make them a little too bright on a screen. That’s why I wanted to use Sakura matte blue for outer space.

That’s why the blue of the starry sky in the first series Yamato is so beautiful. Later I was told that it was too much work, so I let it go, but it turned out to be a beautiful universe.

I was also particular about the way I drew the stars. I used a tool that fastens a hose to a faucet so that it will not come off when it is pulled. The brush is dipped in white paint and flicked with the tongue of this tool. This was the method I always used in manga. I’ve been using it for so long that I can’t even remember when I came up with it, but it kept the stars from looking artificially scattered.

However, I had to compromise on the color of the stars because in the real universe there are colors such as pink and red. If I were to color-code them that way, they would look unrealistic in the image. Therefore, I used white for the stars and blurred some of them. Nowadays, it is easy to draw with CG, but back then, everything was done by hand. It was time-consuming and tedious work, but I liked the warmth of something drawn by human hands.

I was doing this from the very first episode, and even wrote some lines in the script. I would stay up all night to complete lines for a script. On the other hand, I was also drawing the serialized manga. I finished my manga work as usual, then instead of sleeping I went to work on TV plots and storyboard, so I was a bit tired. Moreover, I had to drive myself to a nearby studio to turn in the finished work, which was rough. Looking back now, I’m amazed that I didn’t cause any accidents.

Then I got into music. When I was not invited to the year-end party of a girl’s manga I was involved with, I stayed in my room and listened to music.

The second movement of Beethoven’s Third led to the theme song of Yamato.

When I talked about the theme song with Hiroshi Miyagawa, who composed the music for the anime, I expressed my hope that it would be in the style of Beethoven’s Third Symphony. He immediately agreed. Mr. Miyagawa immediately agreed with me. I was moved by the greatness of his work. My old hobby suddenly became more useful.

I had been preparing for the broadcast, but when it started, I couldn’t sleep. The story on TV was a little different from the manga, but inevitably TV takes the lead. Since the magazine was a monthly publication, it had to become a digest version of what was on TV.

I was too busy to take care of the people around me. I regret one thing because of this: my cat, Mii, who was always with me at the time. I found out that he had cancer. I thought, “Let’s take him to the hospital.” I was up all night, thinking, “Tomorrow is the day.” The day after that, the cancer grew bigger and killed him.

It was on the day of the tenth episode of Yamato when he died, and one of the lines happened to be, “Goodbye, Mii!” It was a story I had written long before, when I didn’t know that my cat had cancer. It was just too sad. When it was time for the line to air, I put the TV up to face the grave I had built in my garden. In the scene where Dr. Sado cries out, “Goodbye, Mii,” I turned up the volume as loud as I could. This cat had been with me since I was in Sugamo.

On the drive back from Kodansha, there was a big, abandoned sign of a cat called “Sammy.” The sign is still there, and I still see it on my way home. I always feel as if it is welcoming me home.

Now, I have the seventh generation of Mii at home with me.

One thought on “Leiji Matsumoto essay, 2013

  1. Thanks so much for this translation Tim. I’d seen this book on Amazon.jp but I had no idea it was so detailed – or beautiful! Wish I could read the rest of it…

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