© 1979 Toei Animation Co., Ltd.
Galaxy Express 999
I'm rather uninitiated into the universe of Leiji Matsumoto, having not experienced any of his works first hand. Therefore, I thought it fitting I discover his work through his one of his oldest and probably best-known theatrical releases, Galaxy Express 999.
Set in the distant future, Galaxy Express 999 begins with the introduction of young Tetsuro Hoshino. Tetsuro's story is a sad one, for he was orphaned while a mere child, his mother brutally murdered by a trophy-hunter, Count Mecha. Tetsuro has vowed revenge on the Count, and for this task he believes he needs to acquire a machine body. In order to accomplish this, he must first obtain passage on the Galaxy Express 999, so he can travel to Andromeda where machine bodies are given freely. Orphaned and without any money, Tetsuro nabs a ticket for the Galaxy Express, an act which draws the wrath of local authorities. While escaping the mechanized police officers, he encounters a woman named Maetel. She pities Tetsuro and gives him the pass he seeks provided she can accompany him. Tetsuro agrees to the request, and the two set off on a journey across the solar system.
Tetsuro's quest leads him into many interesting encounters with all manner of characters, both human and machine. Maetel, the first, is a sophisticated and mature woman, though her reasons for assisting Tetsuro are shrouded in mystery. The mechanized characters in the story are quite varied. Count Mecha is traditionally machine-like and appropriately menacing, while Shadow, a faceless woman who guards the former bodies of humans, is almost ethereal in appearence and manner. I personally liked the crew of the Galaxy Express, comprised of a stumpy conductor and Claire, a woman made entirely of a transparent glass-like substance. Other characters pop up, including Caption Harlock and Emeraldas, though their presence in the story seems token at best.
Galaxy Express 999 is for the most part, a fairly enjoyable coming of age tale disguised as a science fiction adventure. The themes explored in this film are familiar ones for the science fiction crowd, as there is much discussion about humanity and the effects of giving up one's humanity for eternal life as a machine. Tetsuro's single-minded quest for a machine-body begins to wane as he encounters others like Shadow and Claire who have given up their human selves. As he views the effects on those who have forsaken their own humanity, he comes to realize the value of his own mortality.
Standing out in this production are the unique classical designs of the various craft employed by the characters. Blending futuristic sci-fi with traditional historical designs, space travel in Galaxy Express 999 is certainly a unique experience. From the pre-modern locomotive that is the Galaxy Express to the dirigible-like appearance of Emeraldas' ship, I never tired of admiring Matsumoto's creations. Even the settings range from the medieval-era castle of Count Mecha to a barroom set that looks like it was ripped out straight out of the old West.
Unfortunately, Galaxy Express 999 does suffer a couple of problems. A certain amount of knowledge of Matsumoto's universe is required to fully appreciate the nuances in the film. There were scenes, such as Tetsuro's encounter with Tochiro, obviously intended only for fans familiar with Matsumoto's works. While this didn't wholly prevent me from enjoying Galaxy Express 999 , it certainly detracted from the experience as a whole. Another element which I felt could use some improvement was the pacing. A good portion of the movie plods along as Tetsuro journeys on his quest for a machine-body and revenge against Count Mecca, only to lead up to a decidedly underwhelming encounter with the Count. Furthermore, the movie's climax itself had a hollow ring to it, mostly because of an under-developed antagonist and a hastened conclusion.
While a somewhat older production, Galaxy Express 999 sports pretty decent visuals. Animation is fairly minimalist, but the artwork is of good quality, with characters being rendered in Matsumoto's distinct style. The music is a mixture of upbeat J-pop and some beautiful orchestral scores, which lend themselves well to this production.
As an initiation into the world populated by Matsumoto's characters, I felt I would've enjoyed Galaxy Express 999 more with some prior viewing of Harlock Saga. Even so, this film succeeds quite well in the telling of Tetsuro's fantastic journey across the galaxy.
The Verdict: * * * 1/2 (above average)
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