Starting in the mid-1970s, Leiji Matsumoto created a slew of space operatic manga that would establish the visual vocabulary and storytelling tropes that make his work instantly recognizable. Queen Emeraldas falls between Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 in Matsumoto’s manga chronology, and looks at one of the legendary figures of his self-dubbed Leijiverse, the willowy (but deadly) Emeraldas. The first of two volumes, this installment introduces us to the ghost-like titular spaceship and its captain, Emeraldas, who prior to her individual stories began as a sort of female counterpart to Matsumoto's Captain Harlock character. Equal parts space pirate and existential wanderer, Emeraldas travels the galaxy seeking kindred spirits and purpose. She also functions as both judge and executioner along the way, killing those who cross her and taking special, almost maternal, interest in fellow travelers whom she deems worthy.
Matsumoto works quickly to establish the legend of Emeraldas through her own monologues; most instances of her speaking in the book begin with an affirmative “I am Emeraldas,” followed by her backstory and mission. Characters throughout the galaxy both fear and revere her, disbelieving anyone who claims to have seen her in the flesh and lived to tell the tale. We’re also permitted into her private time, where she recounts her past (previous foolishness led to loss, grief, and a scar to remind her of both) and muses over exactly what she must search high and low for in the galaxy – an earnest man.
Here’s where Queen Emeraldas hits an interesting snag within its own vernacular: the difficulty in trying to build a legend in your own universe doesn’t lay so much in showing how your characters respond to the legend, but in instilling the same sense of awe in the reader. Because we’re granted access to her inner monologue when she muses over who is worthy and who isn’t, her moments of mercy and favor don’t come as surprises, nor do they carry as much emotional weight as may have been intended.
That being said, a female space captain with depth of character and both a hot and cold streak commanding her own series in a 1978 shonen magazine is not insignificant. Being empathetic to a legend puts us in an interesting place where the character we were probably supposed to relate to the most—the scrappy space traveler Hiroshi who dreams of setting out on his own space journey—looks extra foolish. Here one of Matsumoto’s trademark character designs, perhaps coined in his late 1960s Sexaroid comics, takes hold; the doofy, knee-height hero juxtaposed against the stable, wise woman. Emeraldas is so next-level it’s impossible for most to even look her in the eye. While Tezuka’s female subjects of the same period were tarty brats who flirted with destructive impulses, Matsumoto’s women could guide virtuous, if unpolished, men to self-actualization.
There isn’t a lot you can say about Matsumoto’s art that isn’t immediately apparent on first glance: elegant female figures and cityscapes, elaborate spacecrafts, inventive costumes. What’s surprising in Queen Emeraldas is how well the loneliness of space travel communicates. While the stretches of space in Captain Harlock or Galaxy Express 999 feel full of the promise of adventure and conquest, Emeraldas’s reflection among the stars and her repetition of her solo mission conveys genuine melancholy. Characters are given too much space for comfort in ships that are too big for them or cities that have been abandoned; no one is ever quite at ease in Emeraldas. Even Matsumoto seems off balance; it’s always interesting to see his horizontal panels at odds with his women with long limbs and locks, which is where the soliloquy pages may have satisfied an artistic urge as well.
It’s a shame Queen Emeraldas wasn’t done better by Kodansha. The book has no introduction or information about its original publishing (if you didn’t know any better, you might think it was created in 2009), which is especially lacking since this is its first publication in English. The pages are small and it often looks like the resolution shifts from story to story. Why Matsumoto remains scarce in English is something I’ve never quite understood; a more archival printing could have been a good first step in introducing a master to US audiences and opening the gates for more to come.