Every 1000 years, the wandering planet Lar Metal brings disaster to the Earth. Their next visit is imminent. On 9 September 1999 at 9:09:09, Lar Metal is scheduled to return and bring what's practically the apocalypse. Only a few people on Earth have any idea of the situation: Professor Amamori, his assistant Yukino Yayoi and a tragically deformed dwarf... sorry, that's Matsumoto's character designs, I mean "small boy" Hajime.
Queen Millennia is an odd series, striking me in some ways as a kind of Rorschach test for one's Matsumoto appreciation. About 90% of its running time is curiously empty. The plot (such as it is) mostly goes at the speed of an arthritic octogenarian on his way to the scaffold. Stuff happens at the beginning and at the end, but the episodes in between had me watching the clock. From time to time there's a little action and it's even rather nicely animated, but this isn't an action show. Instead we have... um, you know, I can't tell you. I watched the bloody thing, but I couldn't tell you at gunpoint what happens except for the good bit circa episode 24 and the apocalyptic stuff towards the end.
Yayoi is sweet and nice. Hajime is frightfully earnest. Professor Amamori is a waste of screen time, but in a blander way than Yayoi's parents and Hajime's classmates. The last of those in particular made me want to stick forks in my eyes, or for preference those of everyone involved in this production. They're the comic relief (ahem), and they make Go Nagai at his lowest common denominator setting look like Oscar Wilde. In contrast Yayoi's parents are merely tedious. Admittedly this is still Matsumoto and any character might turn around and surprise you, such as when Hajime's classmate Banchou proves to have a little sister, but unfortunately the Earthlings are irrelevant to the plot.
Except to the extent that they might influence a Lar Metallian, humans are powerless to avert the apocalypse and it's all down to the aliens. Hajime will be important, but Professor Amamori gets sidetracked into dealing with politicians who will obviously never achieve anything. Matsumoto doesn't like politicians. I get it. I even approve. Doesn't mean they're not boring. To my surprise Yayoi's parents eventually stopped being a waste of space, but only to the extent that they're the parents of the female lead rather than being significant players in their own right.
However all these characters (except the aforementioned comic relief) are very human and everything they do is heartfelt. If you can get into them, I'm sure they're charming and moving. On that level, the show is always strong and occasionally superb.
This show has lots of secrets. That's theoretically a good thing, but it sometimes makes it less than accommodating to the first-time viewer. Take the Millennial Thief, for instance. He's not what he seems and if you've already watched the show, I'm sure he's wonderful. However for those of us coming to these episodes cold, he's bloody awful. He's the literally faceless leader of the world's least sinister "we wanna be in the X-Files when we grow up" trenchcoat-wearing organisation. He spends the first half of the series focusing his attention on Hajime to so little effect that he's effectively a taxi service. You expect him to start offering tea and biscuits.
The mythology also improves tenfold if you have foreknowledge. For those who know their Matsumoto, in another thousand years the heartbreakingly sweet Yayoi is to become a mechanised tyrant hell-bent on wiping out organic life who'll have tried to murder her own twin daughters. This is wonderful tragedy. I'm sure it could make Queen Millennia almost achingly poignant at times... if you've been able to bring this backstory to the series yourself, since there's not the slightest hint of it on-screen.
I admire a show with this kind of depth. However I also think a story lasting twenty hours should be able to stand up without repeat watchings... especially since it's from an era before home videos and DVDs.
Visually it's dated better than Space Battleship Yamato and even Captain Harlock, although it's no Gatchaman. Unusually for Matsumoto, it has a near-contemporary setting and this works rather well. It's a shabby Tokyo of back streets and run-down ramen shops, with faded pastel backgrounds and more realistic artwork than usual. Admittedly a few of the main characters sport Matsumoto's trademark potato-head designs, but that's not a big deal except when Hajime's claiming to be fourteen years old. Maybe that's true on Planet Matsumoto, but in Earth years I'd say he's about half that. But maybe time passes differently for the Elephant Man, I don't know.
I'm being frivolous, but I actually admire all this fearless style. It's a good-looking show. The action scenes are impressive too.
I understand that it's very different from Matsumoto's manga, which is probably in some ways a good thing. Strangely I didn't want to spit-roast Yamori's intestines, despite him being another hot-headed idiot along the lines of the Yamato's Kodai and Captain Harlock's Daiba. Crucially he's not meant to be the hero, instead eventually turning out to be a treacherous, unstable git. What's more I was able to work up some degree of emotional involvement in the cast (which is unusual in a Matsumoto show), although it would have helped if they'd had more to do. You can trace the developing relationship of, say, Yayoi and Yamori, who over the course of the show make choices that end up splitting them irrevocably. That long middle stretch of the show is almost more like a soap opera than anything else. "Oh no, the Millennial Thief doesn't believe Hajime! But Yayoi trusts him, even though she's lied to Professor Amamori! Tune in next week for no exciting developments!"
At the end of the day, Queen Millennia suffers from the same problem I've had with all these classic 70s/80s Matsumoto shows. I'm not involved. Admittedly the show improves when the end is nigh and they start sidelining Hajime and the other useless characters. The last few episodes are good. Late in the day we also get some natural disasters such as tsunami, volcanoes, etc. which are impressive, even if they're all averted through the Millennium Queen's magical powers. I have to call this a bit of a cheat plotwise, but this isn't a show you watch for its plot.
Other praiseworthy or amusing aspects:
- (a) the haunting theme music, which they use to good effect.
- (b) one of the major characters is a glowing yellow naked woman!
- (c) the Lassie moment in episode 33:
- "Woof woof!"
- "What, the orphans are trapped down the old mineshaft with only three hours of air left?"
There's a movie, about which I've heard enough to know never to watch it. It might seem surprising that a two-hour remake of this story can't improve on the twenty-hour slog I've just described, but that's anime movies for you.
I learned the hard way not to try to watch this late at night when I might fall asleep. Sometimes it's kinda sweet, but it doesn't really have anything I'd call a plot. It has lovely moments, but that's all they are. The good bit (around episode 24) was triggered by the unexpected arrival of someone who actually looked as if they might qualify as a non-laughable bad guy. Oh, and this show's idea of space battle tactics is for one-man fighters to fly to their doom against unstoppably superior forces. Leiji Matsumoto wouldn't be Japanese, by any chance? Finally, under no circumstances watch any scene in this show that has comedy music. You'll see what I mean.
I wouldn't recommend this show, but if you have great patience and/or something to do during the slow bits, you'll eventually be rewarded. In fairness, its fans seem to absolutely adore it. If you have enough free time to do exhaustive research into the Matsumoto-verse and watch the entire show several times over, you might too.