‘Wadachi’: Leiji Matsumoto’s lesser known work still resonates

© Leiji Matsumoto/Leijisha
The cover of the first volume of “Wadachi” by Leiji Matsumoto

“Wadachi” by Leiji Matsumoto (Shogakukan)

Every winter seems to bring the death of a master of postwar manga. Just last month, we heard the sad news of Leiji Matsumoto passing away. I have loved reading his works since I was a teenager, and I feel as if I lost another part of my youth.

Reading his obituary in a number of newspapers left me with mixed feelings. I have no objection to “Ginga Tetsudo 999” (“Galaxy Express 999”) being regarded as his best-known masterpiece. But I wonder why “Uchu Senkan Yamato” (“Space Battleship Yamato”) often comes in second.

There is no question that the 1974 TV anime “Uchu Senkan Yamato” sparked Japan’s anime culture, and in this respect, Matsumoto’s achievements as its director and creative designer are significant. However, his manga version of “Yamato,” which was published in a monthly magazine from 1974, was an abridged version of the anime, and the question remains as to whether it can be considered a representative work of this great mangaka. (Unless one considers Matsumoto to be an “anime artist,” although I have objections to that label.)

“Wadachi,” which I am featuring in this column, was serialized in Shukan Shonen Magazine manga weekly in 1973. Although not well known to the general public, long-time Matsumoto fans would no doubt agree that it is a masterpiece.

The story is about Wadachi Yamamoto, a student who has failed to get into college and is studying at a cram school. Due to poverty, he lives in a small, 4½-tatami-mat apartment and makes ends meet by working part-time pulling a cart selling oden stew. The situation in Tokyo has become very disturbing. Large areas of the city are rapidly falling into ruin, and even his tiny room eventually disappears. Japan is at war with another country. Behind the scenes, plans are underway for all Japanese to emigrate to an uncharted planet known as the “Great Earth.” Eventually, Wadachi is also sent there as a settler, but being a country bumpkin with a kooky face, he has difficulty finding himself a better half.

Prior to “Yamato,” Matsumoto’s best-known work was “Otoko Oidon” (Oidon the man). The main character, Nobotta Oyama, is often broken-hearted. He always cowers in his 4½-tatami-mat room, weeps in frustration and exclaims, “You’ll see someday!”

“Wadachi” actually starts out just like “Otoko Oidon,” but develops into an epic sci-fi adventure. Despite looking exactly like Nobotta, Wadachi is more lively and excitable. “Wadachi,” which connects the 4½-tatami-mat room directly with outer space, is a monumental work, its ridiculousness included, for it depicts the infinite possibilities of young have-nots.

I can’t tell you how much encouragement this manga gave me when I read it as a mid-teen. After “Yamato,” Matsumoto cemented his status as a major mangaka with “Galaxy Express 999.” At the same time, it seems to me that his manga thereafter started having less of that teeth-gritting “You’ll see someday!” exclamations. Also, the apocalyptic air about Japan is rife in “Wadachi,” reflecting the mood during the 1973 oil crisis. It appears strangely similar to contemporary Japan in places. This is why I think the theme here will resonate with today’s youth.

While many of Matsumoto’s works were left unfinished, “Wadachi” concludes satisfactorily in two compact volumes, which is another reason why I highly recommend this work. I should say that, in principle, this column is devoted to new publications, but I hope you will forgive me for breaking the rule this once. “Wadachi” is also available in e-book format.