Buried Treasure
Galaxy Express 999: The Movie

by Justin Sevakis, Jun 26th 2008

Despite the myriad scientific impossibilities, the idea of an old fashioned locomotive traversing the stars is an undisputedly romantic image. Sitting in luxury and wood-grain dimly lit splendor, staring out the window at the cosmos as it passes by is a flight of fancy first popularized by author Kenji Miyazawa in his book Night on the Galactic Railroad. So inspired by this story was Leiji Matsumoto that the concept formed the basis of his epic, Galaxy Express 999. (Indeed, the Japanese names for the two are so similar that those new to Matsumoto's work would automatically think of Miyazawa's book.)

The result is one of the most beloved, and arguably the most successful product of Matsumoto's vast catalog, a stargazing journey across fantasy and human endeavor saddled with regret and honesty, but at the same time brimming with wonder and beauty. It's ethereal, as a space opera should be.

A poor boy is left for dead when his mother is coldly gunned down, hunted by a robot aristocrat who hunts human beings for sport. Now that he's older, he wants to avenge her... but the only way to do that is to get an artificial body. As a street kid, he could never afford such a luxury... unless he can get to Planet Andromeda, where such bodies are supposedly given away for free. With the help of his friends he gets a highly sought-after ticket aboard the Galaxy Express 999. With the police hot on his trail and his life worth less than the litter on the street, he is saved from certain death by a tall, beautiful woman.

The woman calls herself Maetel. She's mysterious, but seems to be well to-do. She agrees to pay for a ticket aboard the Galaxy Express in exchange for his protecting her ("It is dangerous for a woman to travel alone, after all," she says with a wink). After a long journey the two arrive on Andromeda, where Tetsuro learns the truth... about his dream of vengeance, and about Maetel as well.

But enough about that. Galaxy Express is all about the journey, the wonderful people they meet and the adventures they have along the way. There's Claire, the glass stewardess aboard the train, and the fussy alien engineer who sometimes gets involved in their exploits. Layovers can take days at a time, so both Maetel and Tetsuro frequently get into trouble along the way. Also making appearances is the rest of the Leiji Matsumoto cast of regulars, from Queen Emeraldas and Captain Harlock to Tochiro and his mother.

Galaxy Express 999 made its manga debut in January 1977, and after winning the prestigious Shogakukan Manga Award in 1978, was picked up by Toei Animation for a television adaptation. The show ran for over four years on FujiTV, with 113 episodes and four specials. It is, to this day, one of the most popular anime TV series in history, and is the subject of many homages, and even a roller coaster that opened in the Tokyo Shinagawa Prince Hotel last year. But perhaps the best incarnation of the GE999 story can be found in the movie adaption from 1979, a gorgeous, fluid event that is still arresting today, nearly thirty years later. It's also a bit more to the point, as the meandering story and slow pacing of the TV series may wear on modern viewers.

I make no secret of my dislike for Rintaro, the anime director whose visually striking sense of style usually does everything it can to prevent a coherent story from being conveyed. We've seen his style completely destroy his stories' substance over and over again, from the incomprehensible X: The Movie to the muddled and bone-headed Harmagedon. But for some reason his disjointed storytelling works for Leiji Matsumoto yarns, which are themselves highly stylized and easily distracted by pretty things. The sort of discontinuity between visual concepts that has bothered me in nearly every other Rintaro work are strangely effective here, with his sweeping gestures and surreal body language. In the late 70s Toei Animation was at the top of their game, and the workmanship on this film is nothing short of sumptuous. (Later GE999 films are not as lucky in either the story or art departments.)

After all, the story of Tetsuro's trek across the universe is a tale of distraction, where the stations along the way provide the bulk of the entertainment, as well as the growth in Tetsuro himself. At the beginning of the story he is but an angry, driven kid in dirty clothes. By the time he gets to Andromeda, he is nearly a man; educated in the way things work, and willing to accept that life simply won't turn out the way he hoped.

There have been several attempts to bring GE999 Stateside, though none of them have been very successful. The first movie had a dub created by Roger Corman that's an utter disaster (and useful only for ridicule today), and two TV specials were dubbed by Harmony Gold in 1986. The only "proper" American release was by Viz Video in 1996, who commissioned a faithful dub by The Ocean Group. I enjoy this dub very much, and indeed this release was my first exposure to the franchise.

Unfortunately, sales were very weak. The master obtained by Viz from Toei Animation was of an ancient, yellowed transfer of a beat-up film print in full-screen. So poor was its condition that Viz attached a notice of apology on their VHS release, explaining that they were merely working with what they could get. The second film, Adieu Galaxy Express 999, looked a bit better, but sales were too low for Viz to bother with the third movie. The manga has never seen a Stateside release in any capacity.

Despite the world of Galaxy Express being relatively unknown in North America, the franchise continues to inspire its fans elsewhere in the world. "Superflat" artist Takashi Murakami names key animator Yoshinori Kanda's work as an inspiration of his, and in Korea a rock band has even christened itself "Galaxy Express." And as for me, I still have the English refrain from that stupid theme song stuck in my head. Galaxy Express 999 is without a doubt Leiji Matsumoto's finest work.


Obscure-O-Meter™
A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only, no English version.
R5 Import only, and out of print.
R6 Import out of print and rare.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Do digital fansubs exist*? YES
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com. *at the time of writing, to the best of our knowledge.

How to get it:
Viz's license to the first two Galaxy Express movies have expired, but a low-cost Korean version utilizing Viz's English subtitle script was released in 2000, and is still in print and available from many online stores that stock Korean imports. (Unfortunately, Viz's dub has not been preserved.) For English speakers, this is your only option at present (other than hunting down the dubbed and subtitled VHS tapes). The DVDs are good, despite low quality packaging; they're anamorphic widescreen and well encoded. Other parts of the Galaxy Express 999 saga have not been made available in English, so fansubs are your only hope for now. With Toei Animation recently making parts of their back catalog available online, however, it's not out of the question for a legally subtitled version to appear available for download at some point in the future.

Screenshots © Toei Animation Co., Ltd.


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