Leiji Matsumoto was a prodigiously imaginative manga and anime artist whose space epics splashed antiwar morality, existentialism and the philosophy of science across an immense galactic canvas.

Matsumoto’s time-bending work, which featured spacefaring steam engines and second world war battle ships, and was populated with characters including a scarred pirate, a drunken doctor and a mysterious princess, influenced successive generations of artists. It also provided the foundation from which Japan’s animation industry extended what is now a multibillion-dollar global reach.

The artist, who has died aged 85, was known for titles such as Galaxy Express 999 and Space Pirate Captain Harlock, which were among the very first Japanese animations to find large audiences outside Japan. Their embrace in France was especially strong, and ultimately led to a video collaboration between Matsumoto and the electronic music duo Daft Punk.

Maetel, one of the protagonists from Galaxy Express 999
Maetel, one of the protagonists from Galaxy Express 999. Many of Matsumoto’s stories were set in a distant future that probed humanity’s most fundamental questions © Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Matsumoto’s science fiction works spearheaded a decades-long process in which manga and anime emerged from the preserve of children’s entertainment — and the counterculture — into a mainstream media form.

Born Akira Matsumoto in the south-western prefecture of Fukuoka in 1938, the artist’s early childhood was steeped in the privation and destruction of the second world war. He dodged the bullets which strafed the nearby rice paddies, and later collected them as trinkets. After Japan’s defeat, he grew up surrounded by the national lament of the war’s survivors.

Matsumoto’s own father, Tsuyoshi, who had been a brilliant pilot and an army major, tried and failed to protect the junior members of his unit from having to fly on suicide missions. He returned a bitter opponent of conflict, repeating the mantra that “people are born to live, not die”, and attempted to quell his son’s ambitions of also becoming a pilot. Matsumoto based one of his most complex and iconic characters on Tsuyoshi: the rueful, ailing but endlessly dutiful Captain Juzo Okita, of Space Battleship Yamato.

But the young Matsumoto also absorbed some of the romance of his father’s experiences “flying through a sea of stars”. As the new space age dawned, he became obsessed with travel beyond Earth. At the same time, his artistic talent was blossoming. Matsumoto’s first published manga comic, Mitsubachi no Boken (The adventures of Honey Bee) appeared in a nationally circulated magazine when he was just 15.

After finishing high school, Matsumoto left home with a one-way rail ticket to Tokyo and an absolute determination to succeed as a manga artist. As well as establishing an important relationship with the great animator Osamu Tezuka — sometimes referred to as “Japan’s Walt Disney” — Matsumoto formed other links that would prove pivotal. His impoverished digs happened to be close to the Tokyo university laboratory of Hideo Itokawa, Japan’s most celebrated rocket scientist, with whom he struck up a long friendship.

Matsumoto meets fans in Turin, Italy, in 2019
Matsumoto meets fans in Turin, Italy, in 2019. The richness of his art ambushed viewers, who were often children watching in the early evening © Giulio Lapone/Shutterstock

As a young artist, working under multiple pseudonyms but eventually settling on Leiji in 1965, Matsumoto produced hundreds of manga and animations, many of them dwelling on the tragedy of war, but plenty straying into other areas, including adult comics. His marriage to Miyako Maki, a pioneering female manga artist whose depictions of young women inspired Japan’s best-loved doll, Licca-chan, created one of the country’s greatest popular culture power-couples.

Matsumoto will be best remembered for his space epics: stories set in the distant future that probed humanity’s most fundamental questions. The richness of his art ambushed viewers — often children watching in the early evening. At the end of one episode of Galaxy Express 999, the protagonist watches as a young couple take their own lives by hurling themselves into space, prompting a reflection from another character on the ephemerality of life, in which Matsumoto’s philosophy can be heard.

Above all, these anime owed their success to their creator’s ability to inject emotion into the minutest on-screen movement. The swaying of a character’s hair, in his hands, could set the tone for an entire scene.

According to Rayna Denison, author of Anime: a critical introduction, Matsumoto’s astonishing imagination and genre-splicing aesthetics are likely to be what he is best remembered for. “But it is in his moral themes, seen across his oeuvre . . . that Matsumoto’s artistry has had its deepest impact, reflecting on Japan’s shifting sense of postwar identity,” she said.


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