Galaxy Express 999 (1979)

Galaxy Express is a weird, strange and really entertaining film from a period of animation that I look at with a lot of nostalgia. I’ve mentioned here before that there were a heck of a lot of interesting animated movies hitting the big screen from around 1977-83, from studios in Japan, the US, and the UK, and Express is a perfect example from that period. Directed by Rintaro from a storyline by Leiji Matsumoto, the movie is a retelling of key elements from a much longer television series, itself an adaptation of a weekly comic written and drawn by Matsumoto and his studio. The theatrical version actually wrapped up its version of the narrative about two years before the TV show reached its climax in a quite different way, so there are a few versions of the story, depending on how audiences chose to view it.

In the world of Galaxy Express, most of the planets and moons have been colonized, and humans who want to live forever can trade in their humanity for mechanical bodies. These are available for free on a distant planet, and that’s where our pre-teen hero wants to go. Years before, his mother had been murdered by the villain Count Mecha, and this tough kid, named Tetsuro, wants revenge. A mechanical body might give him the upper hand, but at what cost?

Unfortunately, the body might be free, but getting to the planet is something only the wealthiest can afford: by purchasing a ticket on a space-faring ship called the Galaxy Express that looks like an old-fashioned steam engine. A mysterious and beautiful woman named Maetel helps Tetsuro get a ticket, and seems like she’s on his side, but she keeps her secrets, and Tetsuro is warned to not trust her.

I enjoy Galaxy Express for lots of reasons, but one that shined this morning is that this may sound like a science fiction story, but it’s really more of a fairy tale than anything else. Incredibly strange things happen in this movie, and they’re explained with poetry, not with science. At one point, approaching the planet Pluto, the temperature inside the train drops. This isn’t because of a problem with the heating or because it’s Pluto, and therefore cold, but because Maetel reasons that this part of space is haunted by the souls of all those who died trying to get here. It isn’t rational, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s an explanation from a bedtime story and it’s lovely. And then there’s the way that absolutely nobody knows where Count Mecha’s Time Castle will materialize next, except for the only people that Tetsuro asks about it.

Our son continued his habit of being entertained and amused by the oddest things. He especially liked Count Mecha’s castle, which has room for “ten trillion games of hide and seek” and which the count decorates by leaving piles of skulls on the staircases. There are all of the trappings for an adventure movie for kids, right down to a bridge way, way above the ground that disintegrates once Tetsuro races back across it. Supporting our heroes in this story are two other Matsumoto characters from his interconnected stories: Captain Harlock and Emeraldas. They help out in the great big space battle at the end, which is the sort of billion-explosion spectacle that live action movies just couldn’t do in 1979, and our son was in seventh heaven. He said he liked the characters just fine, which is good, because he might just see ’em again a time or two.

Galaxy Express is a film that’s looked better and better to me over the years. Back in the mid-eighties, I got to know it through nth-gen bootleg copies. One of Roger Corman’s companies released an incoherently-edited dubbed copy that chopped out almost a quarter of the movie, Tetsuro was renamed something like Joey Hana-canana-be-bi-bo-fana Smith, and the guy doing Captain Harlock’s voice spoke like the talking cowboy hat in Lidsville. A little later, somebody found a subtitled copy, but the copy was so far down from the source material all that I could hear on mine was tape hiss. Viz Media put out a new dub on VHS in the mid-1990s. My own tape was sold or traded or snatched or lost years ago. I upgraded to Discotek’s DVD recently, and their Blu-ray’s said to be even better. If you’ve got anybody aged eight to thirteen in your house, I’d say this film’s a must. Grownup viewers might grumble at the strange science, but kids understand magic a little better and they’ll probably like this movie a lot.

Additional readin’: Check out Dave’s report at Let’s Anime from a few years back. You watch this film at home and you’ll wish you could’ve seen it on a big screen in Toronto with him!

2 thoughts on “Galaxy Express 999 (1979)

  1. I really enjoyed this one a lot. Have you ever seen any of the sequels or prequels? The 2000 release Maetel Legend finally revealed the origins of Metel and Emeraldas, who turns out to be her sister. It explores a lot of the backstory of the two and their mother that was only alluded to in the original Galaxy Express.

    1. Yeah, I’ve seen some of them, and it’s more likely than not that we’ll watch Adieu GE999 and Arcadia of My Youth for the blog, but I think the last I saw of any of these characters was ADV’s release of two of the Queen Emeraldas direct-to-video episodes.

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