5 July 2004 | billys
Classic old-school anime from Leiji Matsumoto
Fans of Matsumoto probably know him best from either his original mangas, or the mostly made-for-TV adaptations like "Space Battleship Yamato/Star Blazers" and "Captain Harlock." The man definitely had his own little enterprise there, with his own vision and style; for a while in the '70s he was arguable THE star creator of anime & manga (like Osama Tezuka before him, and Hayao Miyazaki after). I've never seen his stories in their original episodic TV form, just the impressive and emotional but maddeningly fragmented movie version of "Yamato" (edited down from an entire TV series into roughly two-odd hours). There is no such problem with "Galaxy Express 999," a feature film from 1979.
Besides a cohesive storyline--involving scrappy young Tetsuro Hoshino taking a trip on the eponymous spacegoing locomotive along with enigmatic lady-in black Maetel, and kicking some major mechanical butt along the way for his dead mother--the movie has all the trademarks of Matsumoto at his best: wonderfully slinky old-school character designs, fanciful details and settings, a stylized, distinctly "vintage-futuristic" flavor (rather than the grungy postmodern cyberpunk variety made popular by "Blade Runner" and, in anime, "Bubblegum Crisis"); Matsumoto's obsession with vintage terrestrial vehicles streaking through space (the 999 is an old-fashioned steam locomotive-turned-spaceship, the Yamato is a resurrected WWII Japanese battleship-turned spaceship...one wonders if Leiji ever considered a "Galactic Land-Yacht Edsel"); even Leijiverse regulars Captain Harlock, one of the coolest anime characters ever, and Queen Emeralda figure into the story. A scene where the good Captain forces a belligerent android to down a bottle of rust-inducing milk is a classic--I can hear Japanese movie audiences cheering.
Above everything else, "Galaxy Express 999" offers a kind of poetry in the imagery and the story, and an enormous reserve of humanity and unadulterated drama, that touches on very deeply embedded emotional buttons. Like the Yamato movies, I find myself feeling close to tears in several places. This is no empty thrill-ride anime where the mecha are the stars, but a bona-fide sci-fi drama featuring effectively "real people" with real concerns and intense feelings that radiate directly out to you--what the best anime are all about. See this one, definitely. The style (including that endearing '70s-rock end theme) may strike some younger otaku as quaint or even hard to deal with, but those who stay on the Galaxy Express 999 to the end of the line will be glad they did, experiencing a true anime classic, from a master of the genre, that has survived the test of time.