Adieu Galaxy Express (1981)

A couple of days ago, the delightful @PulpLibrarian made an insightful little observation on Twitter while celebrating Space: 1999. “Harshing on Space:1999 for not being hard sci-fi misses the point: the show is about space being weird and frightening, not about physics and engineering.” And I thought that was particularly interesting because we were coming up on watching another Galaxy Express movie, and this isn’t a world of science fiction, despite the spaceships and laser guns and robot men, it’s a world of allegory and poetry and hero’s journeys and maturity. It’s a strange and occasionally really weird world because it’s so on the nose, but that’s the point of the way this narrative is told: all the ray guns are distractions and fantasies, this is specifically about a boy growing up.

So Adieu Galaxy Express is an arguably unnecessary sequel, told at emphatically unnecessary length. Marie, who really has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, shook her head from exhaustion and said they could have told this story in half the time. She’s right. There are some things I like and admire about this one, but considering how much more entertaining the original one was, they could have sped this along. There’s a lot to look at in its 130 minutes, and some of the animation is extremely good, but it’s very, very slow.

So how on the nose is this one? It’s so on the nose that Testuro has to kill his father, who is also the devil and is named Faust, before he can grow up. The movie starts with four unimportant side characters sacrificing themselves so that Tetsuro can have his journey, because they know that they are the supporting cast and we’re watching to see the kid. Maetel is back, answering as many questions as a cloud might, refusing to address the rumors that she is now the ruler of a galactic empire of machine people who use humans as soylent green energy capsules. Maetel and Emeraldas share a moment on the platform at the end acknowledging that they’ll never see Tetsuro again but their own journeys never end, even as Tetsuro’s does. After all, somebody else’s story is going to need a mother figure and a mysterious femme fatale.

I like the way the story completely subverts expectations with Harlock and Emeraldas. They each get a very quick little “save the day” moment cameo to remind viewers that this series can use them, and then they’re gone again, completely cut off from the story until they’re needed in the end to help blow stuff up. Unfortunately, our son also has better things to do than watch boys grow into men in cartoon movies, and only really paid attention when Harlock and Emeraldas were blowing stuff up.

His only real spoken complaint about the film was an odd one: there’s a trippy and psychedelic bit where the animators smoked all the grass they could find as they visualized the arrival on the planet Great Andromeda, and the kid grumbled “This is making my eyes hurt.” Otherwise, he was very restless and squirmed quite a lot. There are fights and shootouts, but there’s also no sense of danger or fear, and nothing to really engage him. So this was a big disappointment for two-thirds of this morning’s audience, but even though it’s not as good as the first one, I still like it a little.

Arcadia of My Youth (1982)

Last summer, we sat down to watch Horus, Prince of the Sun and I was pleasantly surprised to learn that my old pal Mike Toole had done a commentary track for Discotek’s release, so I got to pop back and watch it again the following week to hear that. This morning, I learned that Mike’s also got a commentary track on 1982’s Arcadia of My Youth, which I haven’t seen in about thirty years. Reckon I’ll be watching it again next week!

We used to call the movie My Youth in Arcadia. It’s the origin story of Captain Harlock, a space pirate who gives no quarter to Earth’s enemies and who occasionally appears in TV series and makes cameo appearances in other series created by Leiji Matsumoto. It’s one of those movies that I used to enjoy very much and watched a dozen or so times in three or four years and then didn’t need to see it again for decades, until I had a kid who needs space battleship action.

Whatever you call it, it’s a very, very good film, albeit one I’ve always felt is simultaneously a little long while also calling out for a little more space and explanations. It was directed by Tomoharu Katsumata, who did a lot of animated films and TV series for Toei in the period, and the earthbound material in the first half has a weird pace to me; it seems like far too much happens offscreen in what is depicted as only minutes between incidents. Throughout, there’s the recurring theme of a pirate radio broadcaster, the Voice of Free Arcadia, giving hope to the people of Earth as the population suffers under alien occupation.

Fortunately, the main villain is one of those awesome baddies who believes very strongly in honor. As Harlock and his allies start working together and gathering strength, he gives him enough rope to lead to a really brilliant climax. And along the way, there are massive casualties among the supporting cast and grievous wounds to carry. Like many other Matsumoto stories, this is very much science fantasy and magic despite all the hardware and tech. At one point, the last survivors of a dead race sacrifice themselves to a fiery space witch that pulls down the life essence of travelers in her sector of the cosmos, which doesn’t make much sense, but gives the story grim purpose.

The kid was restless in places, but once Harlock, Tochiro, and their allies leave Earth in their big green flying battleship, he was on the edge of his seat, and that brilliant conclusion I mentioned had him wide-eyed and laughing in excitement. I told him this movie would have space battleships blowing everything up and it delivers. I love how the spaceships of the 30th Century are designed with windows for the captains to salute each other before pivoting around for broadsides.

Anyway, the kid had a complete ball and was swept away in the end. Just as casual as you like, I pointed out that they made a follow-up 22-episode TV series with the characters, and he wants me to order that as well. This darn blog’s gonna break me, I tell you.

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!