Galaxy Express 999: The Movie
by Paul Jensen,
Hey, it's Preview Guide time again! I'm taking a break this season, but the rest of the crew has all this season's new shows covered. I'm expecting the new Fruits Basket adaptation to be the big show this time around, but you never know when some obscure series is going to come out of nowhere and steal the spotlight. For now though, we've got some new releases and a very old movie to check out this week. Welcome to Shelf Life.
Jump to this week's review:
Galaxy Express 999: The Movie
On Shelves This Week
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Shelf Life Reviews
We're taking another trip into the past this week with the 1979's Galaxy Express 999: The Movie. Here's my review of this classic film, which recently got a new Blu-Ray release in the States.
While there are some minor differences between the different versions of Galaxy Express 999, the core story remains the same. Tetsuro Hoshino is an orphan in the far future, where most people with the means to do so have swapped out their flesh-and-blood bodies for mechanical ones. Tetsuro want to do the same in order to become strong enough to avenge the death of his mother at the hands of the dastardly Count Mecha. He finally gets his chance when a mysterious woman named Maetel offers to let him accompany her on the Three-Nine, a spacefaring train that travels between Earth and a faraway planet where anyone can get a machine body for free. As you might expect from a headstrong young protagonist on a mission of vengeance, Tetsuro accepts Maetel's offer without giving much thought to what her true motivations might be.
The biggest initial hurdle for a modern viewer might very well be buying into the idea of a spaceship that looks like an old-fashioned steam train, especially since traveling by rail has lost some of the romance and mystery it once held. If, however, you can accept the Three-Nine at face value, you're in for a story with a great sense of adventure and an old-school space opera atmosphere. At its core, Galaxy Express 999 is a coming of age story for Tetsuro, and you can see him steadily grow up with each stop the train makes. Along with providing some sobering life lessons, each location also has a distinct look and feel, ranging from huge futuristic cities to run-down towns that wouldn't be out of place in an old Western. There are some genuinely striking and creative visuals here, with one of the most memorable images being a vast field of ice on Pluto that functions as a grim warehouse for the biological bodies that people have abandoned in favor of mechanical ones. It looks an awful lot like a graveyard made out of glass, and it has a kind of sad beauty that's echoed in many of the film's other locations.
It's also worth noting that Galaxy Express 999 exists in a shared universe with some of Leiji Matsumoto's other works, most notably Captain Harlock. This means there are quite a few characters who cross over from those other titles into this film, which will either be a big upside or a potential source of confusion depending on how familiar you are with them. While the script does offer some basic context for Harlock, Emeraldas, and other crossover characters, it does assume the audience has at least heard of them before. I had just enough surface-level knowledge to keep up, but the roles these characters play will definitely carry more narrative weight if you already have an emotional attachment to them, and they may suffer from a mild case of the “Who are you and why should I care?” effect if you go in completely blind. To draw a more modern comparison, it's a bit like watching just one Marvel superhero movie: you don't necessarily need to have seen all the ones that came before it, but you might at least want to know who Iron Man is.
The only unavoidable issue with this film is that at four decades old, it's starting to show its age in a few areas. The pace of the story feels slow and meandering by modern standards, to the point where it'd probably be fifteen to twenty minutes shorter if it had been made today. That's not a deal-breaker by any means, but the Three-Nine does spend enough time at each of its many stops that I have to wonder if it actually qualifies as an “Express” train. The writing also suffers from a lack of thematic subtlety that's pretty common in this particular vintage of anime; there are a number of moments where a character will go out of his or her way to detail the significance of a plot point when the event itself is already self-explanatory. It's the kind of dialogue that robs the audience of the opportunity to piece things together on their own, and that can reduce the emotional impact of an otherwise well-presented scene.
Even when the story wanders off on a detour or the script spells out something that's better left unsaid, Galaxy Express 999 is always a damn pretty film to look at. It's a couple years too old to really benefit from the lavish animation of the 1980s, but it makes good use of the resources it has. The background art conveys the unique qualities of each location nicely, and the final action sequence features an abundance of things blowing up in lovingly hand-drawn detail. The mechanical design feels unique even today, with a mix of industrial and futuristic elements that work far better together than you'd expect them to. The soundtrack is another highlight, featuring an orchestral score and a theme song that has been stuck in my head for days. This Blu-Ray release from Discotek includes an English dub from the old Viz VHS version, which has held up far better than a lot of old dubs; it's pretty faithful to the subtitle track and the main performances are all at least competent, if not better. There are also on-disc liner notes that offer some background information on the film's production and original release, which help put it into the larger context of the anime industry at the time.
If you're an anime history buff, Galaxy Express 999 falls so easily into the “required viewing” category that you probably don't need me to tell you about it. That's the easy part with any review of an influential movie or series; the harder part is judging how well it'll work for folks who are just looking for something entertaining to watch. In that context, I'd argue that it's aged more gracefully than many of its contemporaries, as it still works perfectly well as a standalone adventure story. It's something I'd lend out to a friend, and it has enough clever ideas and creative imagery that I'll definitely watch it again in the near future. Aside from the obvious caveat that it's a forty year-old movie, there's no reason not to check this one out.
That's all for this week. Thanks for reading!
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