The Ruins of Space Battleship Yamato: An Essay on Matsumoto Leiji and War

Excerpted from Natsume Fusanosuke, Manga to “sensō” (Kōdansha Gendai Shinsho, 1997), pp. 108-113.

Translators' Introduction

We mourn the loss of Matsumoto Leiji, one of the greatest science fiction manga artists, who passed away on February 13 due to acute heart failure. He is survived by his wife, the fellow manga artist Maki Miyako. In the Nikkei Shinbun’s obituary, its contributors describe how the Kyūshū native, born 1938, made his debut with “Honeybee Adventure” (“Mitsubachi no bōken”), a submission to the magazine Manga Shōnen (Manga Boys) in 1954; Matsumoto was a high school freshman at the time. His first big hit was the series Otoko Oidon (I Am a Man) in 1971, the humorous account of a student-without-a-school who barely manages to keep up a minimal daily existence.

However, Matsumoto would make his biggest mark in manga creating interstellar epics like Galaxy Express 999 (Ginga tetsudō 999, serialized 1977-81), Space Pirate Captain Harlock (Uchū kaizoku Kyaputen Hārokku, serialized 1977-79), and, of course, Uchū senkan Yamato, serialized 1974-75, commonly known in English as Space Battleship Yamato, and still occasionally spoken of by anime fans as Star Blazers; the anime was produced concurrently with the manga series, and had reached English-language airwaves by the end of the 1970s. Matsumoto's manga version, however, had to wait until 2019 for a licensed, complete English edition, courtesy of translator Zack Davisson and publisher Seven Seas. Frederik L. Schodt, in his landmark study Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, wrote that Matsumoto’s immensely popular science fiction comics had “a lyrical, almost melancholy quality” through the use of techniques such as wordless silence.1 Matsumoto knew he could trust his readers to appreciate the understated in his works. We risk no understatement in saying that his influence is galactic in scale, and we therefore offer Natsume Fusanosuke’s essay on Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato manga to help assess one of the artist’s most endearing legacies.

Shortly after Matsumoto passed away, we reached out to Natsume for comment and a possible obituary, as he is often asked to write. (See his obituaries for Saitō Takao and Shirato Sanpei from 2021). He suggested that we might instead translate for TCJ readers a mini-essay on Matsumoto, Yamato and war memory, excerpted from his 1997 book “War” and Manga (Manga to “sensō”). However, he also requested we provide some context for the essay, because so much time has elapsed since it first appeared.

In “War” and Manga, Natsume was attempting to write entirely on a theme without recourse to his “manga-expression theory”; formal analysis of that type was central to his scholarly approach in the 1990s. (For an example of that, see our translation of the tenth chapter to Natsume's Why Is Manga So Interesting? [NHK Library, 1997], which greatly favors comparison with Scott McCloud’s “Blood in the Gutter” chapter in Understanding Comics.) Instead, here he considers an issue that runs through a great number of manga up into the 1990s: war. The early sections of this short paperback have Natsume looking into early postwar manga, but the greater bulk of the chapters focus on Tezuka Osamu, Mizuki Shigeru, Ōtomo Katsuhiro, and Nagai Gō. Nagai and Matsumoto are the twin subjects of a chapter on the “ruins” of war in contemporary manga, from which this excerpt is drawn. Nagai’s Devilman (1972-73) generates mounds of dead bodies in a wasteland through which savage angels and devil men vainly wage their own war, but the “reality” of such a battle space is hideously deformed by Nagai’s touch of “decadence” (tanbi). Devilman, Natsume writes, “was the visual internalization of ‘war’ for young males at that time.” For the rest of the chapter, which we present here, Natsume fully explores Matsumoto’s appropriation of history and its wreckage to tell his sci-fi epic, though he also considers how Yamato affected the younger generation of Japanese, who grew up in the long shadow of war's memory.

-Jon Holt & Teppei Fukuda

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During the 1970s, we had a number of “oil shocks” and the Japanese economy began to lose momentum, but, overall, we were entering a period of stability and growth. All the rural areas became mini-metropolises, and the landscapes there were becoming ever more homogenized.

For the extreme industrialization of the country, there was payback in the form of tragic environmental pollution and disaster. In 1973, Komatsu Sakyō’s [SF] novel Japan Sinks (Nippon chinbotsu) became a bestseller; in 1974, the big seller was Gotō Ben’s The Prophecies of Nostradamus (Nosutoradamusu no daiyogen, published 1973). Theories about the end of the world were flying around. For myself, I never really thought anything was coming to an end. It was clear to me that something had already ended. Certainly, something had ended, and yet what you saw before your own eyes was nothing like ruins and decay in the landscape of our cities. That image of such strange delusion, I guess, was always lurking there somehow at the base of this end-of-world notion.

If the hope and ethics of Tezuka Osamu’s manga, which were born out of his own wartime experiences, were becoming something difficult to convey to the younger readers who only knew Japan as a somewhat rich and homogeneous society, I think that this change happened around the same time. By then, the images of wartime experiences had become mere notes in a bland and desiccated textbook for the history classroom. They lost their color and became mere fragments of film records which would get played on the news, synchronized with [end-of-the-war commemoration] events held annually each summer.

Around the mid 1970s, one exceptional image was resurrected from a place where science fiction manga’s traditions trafficked with war chronicle manga. This was Matsumoto Leiji’s Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū senkan Yamato, which was serialized in Adventure King [Bōken-ō], 1974-1975). Kaizuka Hiroshi and Irie Yutaka flew a souped-up jet version of a “zero” airplane in 1960s Japan in their Falcon Shingo (Hayabusa Shingo, serialized in Weekly Shōnen Magazine [1962]). Ozawa Satoru made an old-fashioned submarine appear in contemporary waters in his Submarine 707 (Subumarin 707 [1963-65]). Tezuka Osamu made the future and pastoral “old days” co-exist in his SF manga (think of Astro Boy’s school uniform, the wooden hedges, the unpaved roads!). Like them all, Matsumoto too purposefully combined “retro” with “future” and made the battleship Yamato come back to life as a spaceship.

Figure 1. Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū senkan Yamato, Volume 1, [Akita Bunko, 1994 edition]), p. 32.

In Matsumoto's manga, Earth has frequently faced destruction due to raids by the outer-space invaders, Gamilas, and our spaceships capable of fighting them have already been lost. The situation is truly dire. In order to save our polluted planet, we dispatch a ship to the planet Iscandar in a far-away galaxy hoping to get the “Cosmo-Cleaner, a machine capable of eradicating radioactivity.” Thereupon the people of earth recycle the Japanese battleship Yamato, which was left abandoned at the wasteland which was originally the bottom of the sea, and make her fly as a spacecraft (Figure 1). Then, they start the journey through space in order to save our planet before its complete destruction. (I’d say it would be inelegant to ask the question of how it would be possible to recycle the rusted iron plating and make the Yamato into a viable ship for outer space...)

When Yamato (the anime) first aired (1974-1975), it was not all that popular. And yet, when it was rebroadcast in 1975, its ratings went up 20 percent; in 1977, when it was reformatted for the movie screen, its new popularity was so enormous and so fast that it became a media sensation. Those that flocked to it and made it popular were not the baby boomers (who previously enjoyed it). Instead of that generation, who were by that time regular working members of society, the core fans were people born a decade later in the 1960s, and were still mainly adolescents. In 1976, those born in the postwar period now exceeded half of Japan’s total population, but even in that group there were different types of readers, and that difference will result in the diversification of the manga market.

This work should be talked about as an anime, and that could deviate us from the purpose of this book, in which I aimed to mainly discuss the history of manga. However, if we look at Yamato from its place in our history of the images of “war,” then we must recognize its importance at this pivotal time in the postwar era, in which I believe the image of the war was changing. Moreover, Space Battleship Yamato became a prototype for the kind of “media mix” of manga and anime for works that came after it, so we must talk about it.

Figure 2. Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū senkan Yamato, Volume 1, [Akita Bunko, 1994 edition]), p. 68.

The then-renovated WWII battle ship Yamato (大和) is written in the katakana block script as YAMATO (ヤマト); thus, its name no longer evoked “wartime experiences.” For its younger readers, it was much more like an abstract symbol of “tragedy,” a phantom projected from the far past of history. This view is represented by the sense of distance and discontinuity, and it can clearly be seen in two images: one of it being a dead, scrapped ship (Figure 1); the second showing its emergence as a flying space battleship (Figure 2). Look at how the old battleship’s cannons, now space weapons, belch forth flames. The powerful charm in such an incongruity signifies the arrival of the new era in which people do not complain if the battleship Yamato stops being a symbol of Japanese “militarism.”

Instead, for better or worse, the Yamato was a pop caricature of what was symbolic of the Pacific War, and I think these images sublimate the nationalism of a country that had lost the war. For the generation that read Star of the Giants (Kyojin no hoshi) as little children, they probably picked up instead the sense of despair born out of self-sacrifice in its story of wartime heroes from the animated version of Yamato; I guess it probably would have made them feel emotionally moved in some new way.

It seems to me that Matsumoto, who did experience the war and the defeat as a youth, was able to protect the Yamato from its vulnerability of original subject matter by adapting the ship for a speculative story about space voyage, or for a tale of space war in the far future. This sense of distance surely whitewashed the image of actual war memory from the battleship Yamato. The heaviness of the memory of the war did not stick with its space battleship Yamato, as it ended up becoming for its young audience something fun as just a purely futuristic war tale.

We can understand what a hit and what a success Yamato was within the larger context of the growth of a market with consumers of a new generation, who could rally around a youthful story about a tragic fight without any need for reservations or self-restraint due to its being part of the memory of World War II. There is a view that Matsumoto depicted war not as a fight with the opposition of good and evil - that he showed instead salvation from a situation in which there seemed to be no way to fight back: namely, the destruction of our planet. This was a position that belonged to both Matsumoto and many caught up in the zeitgeist of the time.

Its theme is not a victory in war, but salvation from the destruction. And, for the young fans of Yamato, the story embodies a kind of salvation from the ruins within each of them. In other words, for those people born during and after Japan’s high-growth economy, their departure point is exactly those seemingly universal “ruins” that came after the end of a “war,” which belonged to the older generation. As a result, this theme played the role of a sad romantic adventure that was needed by a generation for whom justice had vanished.

Such a youthful romance that can exist in the “ruins” becomes a kind of salvation narrative where people are reborn out of utter destruction. Perhaps, for a society pervaded by a sense of stability in which justice no longer means anything, the only themes that images of war could bring forth were those of salvation and restoration.

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  1. Frederik L. Schodt, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, (Kōdansha International, 1983), p. 21.