Reviewby Rebecca Silverman,
Emeraldas is an enigma – sailing the sea of stars in her pirate vessel Queen Emeraldas, she lives by her own code and has become half-myth, half-real. Her interest is piqued when a boy named Hiroshi Umino crash-lands his homemade spaceship on Mars; she recognizes something of herself in him. As she and Umino take their separate journeys, Emeraldas makes sure that their paths occasionally intersect, carefully helping him as he voyages through the stars.
Technically, this review could simply consist of the words “lady space pirate” and possibly “Leiji Matsumoto” and pique a prior fan's interest in Queen Emeraldas. But as with most, if not all, Matsumoto titles, there's far more going on beneath the surface than a plot summary can really reveal. Set in the same world as Matsumoto's Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999, Queen Emeraldas is only loosely linear and showcases Matsumoto's dream-like storytelling, and this new release of the series, its first in English, is a captivating experience, even if it might be difficult if you're unfamiliar with Matsumoto's brand of space opera.
Originally published in 1978 and reprinted several times since (this volume appears to be a translation of a 2009 book), the story follows the stories of Hiroshi Umino, a young man from Earth who has built his own spaceship, and Emeraldas, a mysterious female space pirate who once also fled the Earth in a ship of her own making. Emeraldas is fascinated by Umino, saying only that he reminds her of herself, and shadows him on his travels, recounting her origins as she observes his adventures. While Umino's travels do proceed in a linear fashion, Emeraldas's do not, showing her past, and her present with only narration to separate the two. It feels a bit like reading a dream – it makes sense as you're involved, but not necessarily if you stop to think about it.
The setting for the story might best be described as “space western,” somewhat in the vein of Cowboy Bebop or Firefly. Many of the small towns Emeraldas and Umino find themselves in have the look of the Old West to them, complete with saloons and small-time sheriffs, and despite her black cloak, Emeraldas has the feel of a gray-hatted cowboy leaning more towards the white than black. To cross her is foolish, as several people learn to their detriment, but if you let her do her business, she'll leave you alone. Essentially, she captures the romantic image of the “noble pirate,” doing good even as she lives by her own rules. While this does lead to a somewhat confusing setup, blending imagery from several different fictional Western mythologies, it largely works. In part, this is because Emeraldas herself is so unfathomable. Even when we are privy to her origins – crashing on a distant planet in her homemade ship after leaving Earth – she has an air of mystery. She seems to see herself as the physical embodiment of freedom (stating several times that she's “free”), but she's actually still tied to her as-yet-unknown past, which in turn ties her to Umino. There's a distinct feeling that Emeraldas's freedom is not quite as all-encompassing as she thinks.
This of course brings up the question of whether or not she's deliberately choosing to tie herself to these other people and events. It could certainly be interpreted as a way of coping with the otherwise lonely life she leads, flitting in and out of towns and being the lone human on her fantastical ship. On the other hand, Emeraldas herself may not be fully aware of what she's doing or why she's drawn to Umino. Perhaps she's trying to help him so that he can lead a different life, one that doesn't have whatever regret or trauma that appears to be driving her. The key to Emeraldas really seems to be wrapped up in her unrevealed past, and her gifts to Umino do seem more like preventative measures (money, blueprints) than an attempt to do good because someone once helped her. Strangely, this involves a lot of commentary about "being a man" and "living like a man," which seems very much at odds with the fact that Emeraldas is a woman, although it may be intended to highlight her "masculine" lifestyle. In any event, along with its art, this element of the manga most strongly reminds us that this was written in the 1970s.
Nebulous plot points and gendered statements aside, Queen Emeraldas's first volume is a space opera both in the sense that it's a soap/horse opera in space, and also because you can practically hear the music of the stars when you look at Matsumoto's depiction of the universe. While aspects of the artwork are certainly very much of the 1970s, primarily the character designs, Matsumoto's sweeping scenes of space or mostly barren planets are absolutely timeless. The fact that his “futuristic” computers look very old-fashioned now is easy to ignore compared to the sheer level of detail that has gone into each piece of technology – remember, Matsumoto (and his assistants) would have had to do everything by hand, making it truly impressive. Likewise, the intricate patterns on expensive vases and jewelry are beautifully rendered, forming a nice contrast to the higher-tech aspects of the artwork. Although the people do look very much of the period in which they were drawn, varying little from all the other characters in other Matsumoto manga, this shouldn't impede your enjoyment of the story, even if this is your first time reading an older manga.
Queen Emeraldas runs the risk of only appealing to fans of Matsumoto or older manga, but it is worth giving a chance even if neither of those are within your usual purview. It will likely help to have some familiarity with Matsumoto's similar works, but it isn't strictly necessary, and Umino offers a fairly good gateway into his world. If you like space cowboys and pirates or simply want to get lost in a strange dreamlike story, Kodansha's beautiful hardcover (with glossy pages) is worth checking out.
Overall : B+
Story : B
Art : A-
+ Beautiful art gives a feeling of both vastness and delicacy, interesting form of space opera that relies more on “horse opera” conventions than soap opera, Emeraldas herself is fascinating
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