(Electric) Power and Matsumoto: the Case of Saint Elmo
Leiji Matsumoto has never been averse to striking deals with commercial concerns, though he is always very careful to control the image of his creations. One cannot accuse him of being a sell-off for a number of reasons: many if not most of his projects in this vein deal with a) his beloved home island of Kyushu and/or b) technology and the education of youth. Matsumoto is very interested in the spread of science and technology and has promoted this process throughout his career. Working with corporations that research and develop technologies makes perfect sense.
It’s no surprise then that Kansai Electric Power and Kyushu Electric Power have both benefited from collaboration with the master. And the results have been interesting.
Saint Elmo: Apostle of Light was released on TV to commemorate the 35th anniversary of Kansai Electric in 1987. Matsumoto is credited for the general concept/idea of this 65 min. OVA. The tale is easily told.
Saint Elmo is a huge power generator on orbit around Mercury. The pride of Japanese engineering, it is responsible for most electricity used on Earth through its harnessing of solar energy. One day an unidentified projectile strikes Saint Elmo and it begins to malfunction and, even worse, drift toward the Sun. To add to the mystery, many animals become capable of using human speech!
An international team of young specialists, including the son of the man responsible for the construction of Saint Elmo, is dispatched to assess and resolve the problem. Once they land on Saint Elmo, a cat on board (plus a fly and a beetle) begin to speak. These three lead the team to the source of the problem: a benevolent, ethereal lifeform that has crash landed on Saint Elmo and is now unable to extricate its flying saucer from the walls of the generator. This alien can communicate with animals directly and somehow also allows animals to communicate with humans (the cat ends up acting as an interpreter).
The team helps the alien release the ship and the alien in turn helps Saint Elmo return to its former position before sailing home, declaring that some day the two races will meet in peace and harmony. The end.
This OVA screams 1987, and by that I mean it is bursting with Japanese confidence in its own power. The biggest clue is the simple fact that Saint Elmo is Japanese. Moving on to the plot, the final crisis is solved by the Japanese member of the team, Yuki, who is the son of Saint Elmo’s designer. More cryptically but just as decisive is the following detail: once inside the generator Yuki finds a helmet that belonged to his father. The helmet bears a message with the date Space Year 660. For traditionally-minded Japanese the number 660 has a special significance as it is the year (by Western reckoning) of Japan’s mythical foundation (660 BC actually). The reason why the WWII Zero fighter was named Zero was because it was launched in the year 2600 of the old Japanese calendar (1940 in the Western, 1940 + 660 = 2600). And the reason Matsumoto chose the penname Leiji is because it means “Zero Warrior”.
So one comes off the story with the feeling that the international team was unnecessary from beginning to end. Indeed, this feeling is perfectly analogous to the one I had after watching Gunbuster, which came out just one year later in 1988. For more on Japanese nationalism in that show see my post Deconstructing Gunbuster.
One jarring thing about the OVA was Masako Nozawa voice acting the Egyptian member of the team, Gugi. Nozawa was the voice of Tetsuro Hoshino in the TV series and the movies, and she insists on using exactly the same voice here. I guess that could be considered funny or interesting by some…I found it disconcerting. That said, the most remarkable aspect of Saint Elmo is that Leiji Matsumoto has a tiny voice acting role as a man looking just like himself (in minutes 23-4). He sounds very amateurish but charming nonetheless. Basically he is at an ATM and sees the protagonist receive a lot of cash from the machine (probably due to a power malfunction) but when he tries to pick the money up the police shows up.
All in all, the film is not the blatant propaganda that one could expect. There is lots of talk of energy and power sources, and of course Japan shows up at the forefront of it all, but they definitely put enough effort into the animation and plot to make it palatable. Personally I didn’t like the character designs, which look like diluted versions of Matsumoto’s classics.
I’ll discuss the Kyushu Electric projec in another post…