Leiji Matsumoto was one of the great creators of 1970s anime, but until this year the only time we've seen any of his original manga released here was back in the mid 1990s when Viz put out a Galaxy Express 999 sequel. You can only imagine everyone's surprise then when Kodansha announced the subject of today's review. Matsumoto fans know it well, but it doesn't quite have the brand-name recognition of something like Captain Harlock or Galaxy Express 999. Was there room in today's manga market for an old science-fiction manga like this or would it just come off as a strange artifact of a distant time?
QUEEN EMERALDAS (Kuin Emerarudasu), by Leiji Matsumoto. First published in 1978 and first published in North America in 2016.
Across the galaxy, the name of Queen Emeraldas is one that is spoken in both admiration and awe. She is a solitary figure, soaring her way across the stars on her own personal quest. A determined young boy named Hiroshi Umino crosses her path one day, and from that moment he is determined to find his way back to space under his own power to find her. What he doesn't know is that Emeraldas is never too far away, smoothing his path with her mind and her deadly gravitysaber.
Queen Emeraldas seems like an odd choice of a license, but after reading it, the choice makes a lot more sense. Its themes are simple but strong with plenty of atmosphere, and those go a long way towards smoothing over its faults
Emeraldas might be the title character, but the story is just as much Hiroshi's as it is hers. The story trades back and forth between his story and her backstory, a storytelling trick which seems kind of random at first but only gets more clever as it moves along and the pieces start falling into place. The only problem is that it feels like it's building up to some big meeting of minds or confrontation between the two. Instead, they just kind of pass one another by and Emeraldas drops a narrative bombshell for no obvious reason. It's hard to not feel kind of frustrated by that because the build-up had been so good in the first place.
There are some interesting parallels built up between Hiroshi and Emeraldas. Matsumoto makes a big deal about how much importance both of them place on their personal freedom and their pride. It's what drives them both to keep flying, even in the face of impossible odds or fierce opposition. Like the rest of the supporting cast, we're meant to stare on in awe and admiration at their determination and willing bend over to give them whatever sort of support they need, logic be damned. It seems that personal pride is a lot easier to maintain when you happen to stumble across some sort of mystical ship like Emeraldas does. It's also easy to maintain when the good people you stumble across will go out of their way to take out you comically wicked opponents, as Hiroshi finds out more than a few times.
In all fairness, Matsumoto was never one for being consistent. Lord knows he never was with any of his works. Thankfully, aside from some pretty blatant hits about just whom Emeraldas is looking for, there aren't any references to his other works. That means that newcomers can just focus on the story and the two leads instead while Matsumoto fans don't have to tear their hair out trying to make it all fit into greater continuity.
Speaking of Matsumoto being inconsistent, let's talk about his artwork! I'm hardly the first person to make this observation, but it remains forever true: Matsumoto has maybe half a dozen character designs to his name and he just keeps reusing and remixing them. Hiroshi is his standard Potato Person protagonist, while Emeraldas is basically Maetel cosplaying as Captain Harlock, and everyone else might as well be a squiggle. He's pretty loose with the way he draws them too (as he is with most things). He's more concerned with emotional impact than keeping things on model.
That's where he truly excels, at capturing a dramatic pose or the back-and-forth of a duel or ships careening through the sky. At least it's all set against some rather evocative settings. In Matsumoto's universe, planets are either windswept, arid wastelands or oppressive technological regimes. Most sci-fi artists of this era were all about exotic locales, but here the stars are far more appealing than any planet our leads could ever set foot on. He's also got some elegant paneling at points, even if it's mostly in service to posing Emeraldas as wistfully as possible. Overall, it's easy to see here what makes Matsumoto's art compelling. Like a half-worked gemstone, there are flashes of brilliance and beauty between the more unpolished parts.
There are a couple of side stories after the big twist, which involve Emeraldas escaping an oppressive autocrat. That's not terribly interesting onto itself, but what is interesting is what's revealed at the very end of them: the original manuscripts for them were lost. As such, they had to be reproduced from the magazine they were published in, and you can tell to some degree through the slightly lesser quality of the art. A lot of reviews have praised Zack Davisson's translation here and I can see why. At times he captures the sort of pulpy poetics that such a story demands. especially whenever Emeraldas starts narrating to herself.
Queen Emeraldas can be inconsistent at times, but its flare for the dramatic and the care it takes with the narratives for both its protagonists more than make up for them. I hope we won't have to wait another 20 years for more.
This series is published by Kodansha Comics. This series is complete in Japan with 4 volumes available. 1 volume has been published and is currently in print.
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