Reviewby Carlo Santos, Jun 19th 2009
Galaxy Express 999
Episodes 1-13 Streaming
In the year 2221, technology has created a huge gap between rich and poor—those who can afford cyborg bodies, and those who cannot. Tetsuro is a poor boy who dreams of gaining a mechanical body, and with his mother, they plan to board the intergalactic train named Galaxy Express 999 and travel to a planet where cyborg modification is done for free. However, Tetsuro's dream is shattered when his mother is killed by cyborg raiders; meanwhile, he gets rescued by a beautiful woman named Maetel. Maetel offers Tetsuro a free pass to travel with her on the Galaxy Express 999, and so, after avenging his mother's death, Tetsuro embarks on a journey that will take him into the reaches of deep space and hopefully to the world where he can achieve his dreams.
Galaxy Express 999 is a complete affront to anyone with a decent grasp of science and engineering. No, not because you can crack a window open in the vacuum of space (easily explained away by "invisible rails" and "deflector shields"), and not because you can move through alternate dimensions and black holes like they're just blips in the countryside, and certainly not because of the gratuitous rule-breaking when it comes to escape velocity and faster-than-light travel. No, the series' most egregious transgression against science is a simple question of form and function: is a traditional railway train really the best way to move large numbers of passengers through space?
Yes, because Leiji Matsumoto says so, and because it looks cool.
Thank goodness Matsumoto didn't let himself get hung up on the laws of astrophysics, otherwise he never would have given the world this sci-fi gem—a series that concerns itself more with the triumphs and tragedies of the human condition than with explosion-laden interstellar wars. Even though these thirteen episodes are merely the first steps in a grand space adventure, they paint a clear picture of powerful emotions and thoughtful storytelling. GE999 wastes no time in telling heartbreaking tales of sacrifice (one particularly tragic character, Claire, shows up in Episode 3), or of lives that could have been so much more (the trophy wife; the minimum-wage slave; the beauty who traded her looks for a mechanical body), or of romances that are doomed for eternity (a frequently recurring theme).
Even characters who seem like outright adversaries to Tetsuro end up earning the audience's sympathy: stories like "The Red Winds of Mars" and "The Fossilized Warrior" involve raygun-wielding young men who want to build a new life by getting aboard the 999, but with only one train pass to go around ... well, it's hard to know who to root for when these guys deserve as much of a chance as Tetsuro. And it's those kinds of moral dilemmas that make the series stand out from other bang-bang space adventures: often times the bad guys aren't bad, they're just in a bad situation—and there isn't much Tetsuro can do to help them find justice in this universe. Yes, even in a fantastical world where trains go barreling through space, the harsh truths of reality ring true.
However, not every episode is so profound, and every so often comes a lightweight offering. Episodes like "Nuruba, the Planet Without Form" and "The Comet Library"—where Tetsuro and Maetel have to fend off wacky alien hazards rather than contemplate the fate of the downtrodden—are clearly more like light fillers, designed to take the edge off the darker and more serious tales.
While the chronicles of Tetsuro and Maetel's journey have a timeless quality to them, the production values of this late-70's creation are a different proposition entirely. Modern eyes may have to adjust to the sometimes shaky animation, where linework might blur or jitter, and colors are limited to whatever paint jars were at the animation studio, and technical details like perspective and lettering are subject to human error. But when the visuals come together fully, there is a warmth that can never be matched by the digital era—the deeply surreal landscapes of extrasolar worlds, the fluidity of motion that would probably be sanitized and auto-corrected to death if done on a computer, the mechanical details rendered on each train, and the sinuous style that is Matsumoto's trademark. Go ahead, fault him for only having three character designs—heroic warriors, leggy ladies and squat little comic-relief types—but these archetypes have stood the test of time, and surely are more memorable than many of today's cookie-cutter protagonists.
Also stuck in firmly the 70's is the series' soundtrack, which relies on a genuine orchestra mostly because synthesizers weren't that good yet. While some of the harmonies and instrumentation drip with mid-20th-century cheese, it's clear that the no-electronics restriction is actually a boon in some cases: nothing can match the richness of a full string section or the plaintive quality of solo winds when it comes to expressing the emotional spectrum. Less impressive, however, are the theme songs, which rely on a more traditional, almost archaic style of songwriting.
But why this sudden big deal about Galaxy Express 999? Because now anyone can pull up a web browser and check it out (the next Naruto: Shippuuden is still a few days away, what else are you going to do in the meantime?). Much has been made of how streaming TV has erased the time lag for international anime fans, who can watch the latest shows as soon as they air. But another channel has also opened up: one that travels back in time to the shows of yesteryear, dredging up titles that might have gotten lost in out-of-print limbo or stuck in the memories of aging fans who complain that today's generation has no appreciation for the classics. Well, guess what—today's generation now has a very convenient way in which to appreciate the classics. And where better to start than with an iconic sci-fi series that has inspired so many others?
Overall (sub) : B-
Story : B+
Animation : C
Art : B
Music : C
+ In an age where space adventure anime usually meant robots and spaceships and lasers in all-out war, this one tells stories with a thoughtful, human quality.
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