My latest for the New Yorker: a lookback at the legacy of anime master Leiji Matsumoto.
More than any single other manga artist or animator, the work of Leiji Matsumoto could be said to have created modern-day anime fandom. He passed away at the age of 85 in February, and today I wrote about his legacy for The New Yorker. The mass popularity of his 1979 film "Galaxy Express 999," set aboard a sci-fi steam locomotive soaring through the stars, helped redefine the medium of anime as something more, much more, than kids' stuff in Japan. Soon the world would follow suit. As young people around the globe began consuming illustrated fantasies from Japan, they transformed leisure lives and created new identities for themselves.
Matsumoto's haunting visions of end times — whether at the hands of aliens, robots, or ourselves — made cataclysmic imagery virtually synonymous with the artform. For the remainder of the 20th century, it was almost de rigeur for a Japanese animated production to open with an Earth-shattering doomsday of fiery destruction, or to be set in its aftermath.
Anime is as popular as ever, but now that young people around the world are struggling through times that feel apocalyptic in many ways, they seem to be losing their taste for the sorts of dramatic situations that animated the first generation of fans. Still, Matsumoto's legacy lives on in the work of the many fans and creators he inspired. From "Gundam" to "Macross" to "Evangelion" and more recently the works of Makoto Shinkai, the echoes are everywhere. It's impossible to imagine anime without him
I was never fortunate enough to meet Matsumoto in person, but I indirectly crossed paths with him once, in the early Nineties, in suburban Maryland, of all places. I was in high school at the time, and it turned out that Matsumoto was staying at the home of one of my classmates, who was Japanese. Her father and Matsumoto were old friends, it transpired. I only learned of this when she pressed an envelope into my hand at school the next day. It contained a postcard with a sketch by Matsumoto, signed to me personally. For a manga-crazed kid raised in suburban America, Japan felt as far away as Mars, and getting this piece of art from a master of the craft passed to me like a note in the hallway felt like some kind of miracle.
That drawing is one of my treasures. It has followed me from place to place throughout my life. It hangs over the computer where I type these words today in Tokyo, a reminder, whenever I need it, of what drew me here in the first place.
Thanks for reading Matt Alt's Pure Invention! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.