Anyway, I have known legendary Japanese science-fiction comic book writer and illustration Leiji Matsumoto since the late 1990s when I saw on the Canadian television network SPACE: The Imagination Station (also known as the “Space Channel” or simply “Space”) the 1979 Japanese animated theatrical film Galaxy Express 999 (also known as “Galaxy Express 999: The Movie” and “Galaxy Express 999: The Signature Edition”), which was adapted from a Japanese comic book serial. It was written and illustrated by the man himself, produced by Toei Animation, and directed by Rin Taro (the director of the anime film Metropolis). Since watching the film, I have been extremely interested in exploring the various space adventure anime sagas that Leiji Matsumoto created and/or worked on such as Captain Harlock (known by Francophones in France and the Quebec province of Canada as “Albator”) and Space Battleship Yamato (best known in the western world as “Star Blazers”). What’s unfortunate is that none of the industry veteran’s space adventure-themed works seem to be well regarded by the North America-based fan community. In general; they are looked down as being too old-fashioned to be considered relevant for anime entertainment despite the fact that some of his works from the 1970s (the first Space Battleship Yamato television series for example)played a role in Japanese Animation’s evolution from being a sub-genre of children’s cinema and television to being the generically and demographically diverse medium of entertainment it has been for many years and still is today. While trying to figure out what I can do to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Leiji Matsumoto’s service in the Japanese Animation industry, I think that a review on 1979’s Galaxy Express 999 should be a good start.
If you are the type of person thinking the concept of a flying train in space is too childish for an animated intended partly for an adult audience, think again. If anyone who watches sci-fi films on a regular basis can handle seeing the depiction of advanced technology in sci-fi works belonging to the sub-genre known as “steampunk”, anyone can handle seeing a future-based flying train that resembles 19th century old west tech on the outside, and yes, this anime movie took place in the future. Moreover, what helped the classic film feel like it had a story about something adult audiences could relate to was that the train 999 was more than just a vehicle transporting passengers from planet to planet as it was also the plot element that granted the film’s male protagonist Tetsuro Hoshino the opportunity to mature towards being a man at heart as the orphaned boy himself would. Traveling from planet to planet, learn more information about the reality surrounding him, details that would make him reject his initial views of the universe (which saw the rejection of a human body in favor of a machine body in a process called “mechanization” as an advancement of life) in favor of new ones (which saw what he desired to possess at the beginning of the story as a deterioration of the human soul). Through this, Galaxy Express 999 reflected the real-world notion that part of growing up is coming to terms that sometimes what we want, even while being young at age, is not as great as we hope it to be and sometimes, there are things better than what we want.
As for conflicts between the protagonists and the antagonists, Galaxy Express 999, like a number of science-fiction anime in the past, managed to break away from maintaining the good-versus-evil format. You see, this animated film depicted a universe where people are divided in two opposing groups with each having its own view on who the heroes are and who the villains are.
Going further, those who support the concept of mechanization (including the members of the Machine Empire, the film’s antagonists) saw those who oppose it as the villains because mechanization was intended to grant the mechanized immortal life free of pain and illness while those against mechanization (outlaw space pirates Captain Harlock and Emeraldas for example) saw themselves as the heroes as they believed in preserving humanity’s right to existence despite the fact that being human meant having to live a limited life defined by a mixture of both pleasant and unpleasant qualities. Interestingly, what helped Testuro’s maturation in this movie was that he was able to switch sides during his voyage, even rethinking his attempt to avenge his mother’s assassination by the mechanical soldier Count Mecha by rejecting his goal of getting a machine body in favor of the desire to rid the universe of all mechanical people as a human after encountering not only humans who suffered torment by the Machine Empire, but also people who regretted accepting machine bodies as it cost them some of the things that made them happy before.
Regarding Maetel, the female protagonist of Galaxy Express 999, she played a role in the story that worked well for both her and the male protagonist. In this film, Maetel, despite being the princess of the Machine Empire, was desperate to recruit someone to help her put a stop to the oppression her people were bringing on all non-mechanized life across the universe, and with the movie being partly about Tetsuro’s maturation towards being a man coming to terms with the entire reality about mechanization, it made sense for the film to have the heroine herself remain secretive about her royal background during their travel together in space, allowing it to help Tetsuro to take time to mature towards being the kind the warrior Maetel needed to aid her in her cause, although the boy’s learning of her background after arriving at the Machine Empire’s planet would for a short time, put the love between them to the test because some truths are hard to live with. In a sense, Maetel was a mother figure who was testing Tetsuro’s ability to mature.
Through the portrayal of the space train 999, the controversy of machine bodies, and Maetel’s capability to fashion Tetsuro Hoshino into his manhood, Galaxy Express 999 is an animated movie with a deal creativity so fantastic that both kids and adults should be able to enjoy it despite its age. Kids should watch this film as its portrayal of Tetsuro Hoshino tends to serve as a reminder that it is better to learn the truth earlier than to wait too late to lead a sensible mature life whereas adults should be able to enjoy it for not only issues of growing up that they can relate to as they look back at their youths but also range of the sci-fi elements featured (machines, flying trains, future settings, space pirates, and giant spaceships), which are also why kids should be able to enjoy this film. Also, as the forces of Hollywood are looking for what animated and comic book works from Japan to give the U.S. movie treatment next (whether the treatment be live-action or animated), I think we can all agree when I say, “this is a Japanese work of fiction that should easy for U.S. filmmakers to westernize without losing /downplaying its essential story elements”. If you are new to Japanese Animation and are interested in exploring anime works from past decades, I recommend that you include Galaxy Express 999 in your must-watch list, and it is currently distributed on Region 1 DVD by Eastern Star under the banner Discotek Media. Thanks for reading, and see you next time.