Back in time to one of the oldest animé movies in my collection: Galaxy Express 999 (which, by the way, is pronounced as “Three-Nine”).

Time to ride the soul train.

There is so much going on in Galaxy Express it is hard to know where to start. 

There are recognisable cyberpunk elements five years before Neuromancer (well, 6 if you count the manga but I haven’t read that), specifically an obsession with mechanised bodies as the path to immortality and grappling with the dehumanising effect thereof.

The steam train in space could be seen as steampunk, but is actually a nod to Night on the Galactic Railroad a novel about a train taking souls to the stars. Night on the Galactic Railroad was also made into a fascinating anime movie which I’ve seen but don’t have. So, regrettably, it won’t be appearing in this series of posts.

However the idea of the soul train seems to have caught on in Japan as it appears at least once in Miyazaki’s movies (definitely in Spirited Away, arguably in My Neighbour Totoro), as well as in ARIA the NATURAL (Episode 21). I’m sure that there have been other references that I’ve missed over the years.

So, on with the show!

As is often the case in Matsumoto Lejji’s works there is a staggering divide between rich and poor.

The upper levels of the megalopolis are bright and shiny, complete with flying cars and glittering lights. And no soul, and precious little in the way of humanity. Most of the residents seem to have the mechanised bodies and an utterly callous outlook towards others.

Down below in the slums there are crumbling ruins, tattered wanted posters for Harlock, Emeraldas etc, and bustling life as the kids play in the rubble.

In the wreckage Hoshino Tetsuro seeks to avenge his mother’s murder and gain immortality by riding the Three-Nine to the Andromeda Galaxy where they give machine bodies away for three. Right there is the soul train reference: ride the Three-Nine and you will give up your body for a “higher” form.

Incidentally his mother was murdered by Count Mecha who was looking for a pretty human to mount as a trophy on his wall.

Testuro’s schemes to gain access to the Three-Nine are inventive, entertaining, and fall just short of success until he is rescued by that mysterious willowy blonde Maetel (who closely resembles his mother).

Maetel offers a deal for guaranteed access to the Three-Nine if he will be her travelling companion. And there are no overtones of a deal with the devil here at all. Honest.

Matsumoto has never been particularly fussed about continuity but in essence this movie is a compression of the manga (21 volumes) and anime (113 episodes) achieved by only visiting four planets instead of 100. All four of the stops are critical.

[Aside: 100 stops indicates to me that Matsumoto may have difficulties with the concept of “express”. :)]

One interesting aspect of the stops is that layover time is always one local day – 24 hours on Earth, 16 days on Titan, etc. I’ve since seen a similar device in Kino’s Journey where the titular character always stays three days in each town (and according to the wikipedia page Galaxy Express 999 was a key influence).

The first stop is Titan where Tetsuro receives a Cosmo Dragoon, hat, and cloak from the mother of Oyama Tochiro (the man who built the Arcadia), marking him as Tochiro’s spiritual heir. Some minor adventures with bandits, and also with one of Count Mecha’s minions, help to establish his willingness to fight for what is right.

The second stop is Pluto which has what has to be one of the creepiest scenes in anime. It turns out that the original bodies of those who receive mechanised bodies are stored on Pluto in a massive graveyard of transparent ice. This is revealed in quite a disturbing way, and it turns out that those with mechanised bodies can (for a further fee) return to their human existence should they choose to do so.

The fact that the caretaker cannot decide whether or not she will return to her body, and has set it up in a shrine simply adds to the creepiness of this scene.

Then we meet Claire in the dining car with her clear glass body that she was forced into by her vain mother. Claire is working on the Three-Nine because she wants her body back, but can’t afford it yet.

Despite the maturity of her form, I always see Claire as childlike in her soul. Her nudity I see as symbolic of innocence, and she’s quite the tragic figure all told.

At this point there is also an encounter with Queen Emeraldas that results in Tetsuro finding out where Count Mecha’s Time Castle will next appear. As is usual for encounters with Matsumoto pirates, a steadfast will is the key to success (having Tochiro’s gun didn’t hurt though).

The third stop is Heavy Melder where Tetsuro meets Tochiro (and helps Tochiro upload himself into the Arcadia). With some help Tetsuro manages to complete his revenge, and lays his mother’s body to rest. Critically it is at this point that Tetsuro abandons his ambition to obtain a mechanised body of his own.

He has come to realise that the price is far too high, and now seeks to rid the universe of the mechanised bodies entirely.

And, so, on to the final stop: Planet Maetel, ruled by Maetel’s mother Queen Prometheum (gee, I wonder if that’s a classical allusion).

This is the climax of the film where it is revealed both that Maetel has been trying to destroy the Machine Empire,and that instead of a machine body Maetel has a clone body (no prizes for guessing who).

Mayhem and destruction ensue, including the obligatory scenes of Captain “Oxygen is for WIMPS” Harlock and Queen Emeraldas providing close air support.

And I mean close air support.

Eventually Planet Maetel explodes just after Maetel and Tetsuro make their escape in the Three-Nine. Unfortunately so did Queen Prometheum and only Claire’s sacrifice defeats her and saves Tetsuro.

All that’s left of Claire is a single glass tear. Sniff.

The movie ends with Tetsuro on Earth waving goodbye to Maetel as the Three-Nine heads off again.

Does Galaxy Express 999 make a lot of sense? Well, no. It is a Matsumoto Leiji film directed by Rintaro, you shouldn’t be expecting sense or logic. Having said that the plot holds together better than I expected (and you in the back row can just shut up about Tetsuro and Maetel outrunning an exploding planet, OK?).

Is Galaxy Express 999 stylishly written and visualised? Well, duh. It is a Matsumoto Leiji film directed by Rintaro, you should automatically expect this and it doesn’t disappoint. Come on: steam trains IN SPACE! What’s not to love?

Galaxy Express 999 does tackle some serious philosophical issues and  does so well. Tetsuro’s initial goal is reasonable in context of the universe, and having the things he sees in his travels change that position is convincingly handled.

Finally in addition to being well worth the effort to track down in its own right, Galaxy Express 999 has been an influential work in anime. Students of the medium should make the effort to watch this if only to trace that influence downstream.

Day 1 – New Kimagure Orange Road: Summer’s Beginning (1996)
Day 2 – Naruto Shippuden The Movie (2002)
Day 3 – Galaxy Express 999 (1979)
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