Galaxy Express 999 ran from September 1978 to April 1981 and comprises 113 episodes. It is based on Leiji Matsumoto’s manga of the same name that ran in Shonen King from January 1977 to November 1981. Many consider Galaxy Express 999 to be Matsumoto’s greatest work (though I prefer Captain Harlock).
The story takes place in a future very different from our own. Hoshino Tetsuro is a ten year old boy born into a very poor family. Earth society has statified into the rich who take on mechanical bodies and live in high-tech cities surrounded by comforts and the poor who must remain in their flesh-and-blood bodies and eke out a miserable living in vast, sprawling slums. One of the primary modes of transport between planets in this future world are high-tech space ships that are built to resemble trains of past eras. The most famous of these is the Galaxy Express 999 which resembles a steam locomotive from the 1800’s. The poor people of many planets believe that the Galaxy Express will take passengers to a planet far away in the Adromeda Galaxy where mechanical bodies are free. A mechanical body is a passport to the upper levels of society and a better life. However, tickets for the 999 (commonly called “the Three Nine”) are very expensive.
Tetsuro’s loses his father to the extreme physical labor so many poor men are expected to carry out to feed their families. Tetsuro’s mother decides to take him to work in the city near the 999’s station so they can work to pay for their tickets on the legendary space train. On the way to the city tragedy strikes when Count Mecha, a rich and powerful man who hunts poor people for sport, kills Tetsuro’s mother. In his attempt to escape Count Mecha’s hunting party, Tetsuro is aided by a mysterious woman dressed all in black named Maetel. Maetel offers Tetsuro a free pass for the 999 if he agrees to travel with her. Resolving to get a mechanical body and live a long, happy life for his mother’s sake, Tetsuro agrees. Thus begins the long journey through space that forever changes Testuro.
The 113 episodes of the show tell the story of this journey between Earth in the Milky Way Galaxy and Promethium in the Andromeda Galaxy. Although only ten years old, Tetsuro has the qualities a person needs to complete the dangerous and wondrous journey. Tetsuro learns many lessons that shape his character and prepare him for the nasty surprise awaiting him on Promethium.
I enjoyed Galaxy Express 999 and will show it to my two boys when they’re a little older. However, I hesitate to recommend it to many of the mecha fans I know because it isn’t the sort of science-fiction show that Westerners expect. Matsumoto places very little emphasis on technology and details in his stories. His science-fiction tales swing awfully close to the fantasy genre with their anachronistic technology, lack of detail on technologies pivotal to the story, and his capacity to take all sorts of cultural practices from bygone eras and shove them into high-tech futures. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Galaxy Express 999.
We see a distant future where technology has advanced to the point where humans have colonized countless planets and found ways to transfer themselves to mechanical bodies that enable them to live well beyond a thousand years. Yet in this future setting people travel between planets and stars mainly by way of “space trains”. These trains resemble old Earth trains in every detail. The seating is the same as commuter trains in modern Japan. Many planets have cities that exactly resemble Japanese cities of the 1970’s. Other planets have high-tech, futuristic cities while many more have cities that perfectly resemble American cities from the early 1800’s. It makes for a truly odd galactic society but Matsumoto doesn’t sweat the details.
Matsumoto is a sentimental sort of person who wants to express certain themes and when story details or futuristic technology gets in his way he doesn’t hesitate to jettison them. Although ignoring the details of technologies vital to a story (like how space flight works when the characters are constantly travelling between planets) is usually a hallmark of a bad science-fiction writer, Mastumoto’s characters are so appealing and his stories so compelling that I’m ready to put up with some silliness to enjoy the story. Japanese audiences seem willing to do the same but Western audiences rarely agree.
Galaxy Express 999 has 47 hours and 5 minutes of running time altogether. With all that time one can tell a complicated story but instead Matsumoto tells the story very slowly. The plot develops in small ways once every 12 episodes or so. Tetsuro’s long journey through space is used as a platform for Matsumoto to communicate his views on life. In each episode the 999 arrives at a station on a new planet and Tetsuro is faced with a different place. Each planet has a unique culture with its own problems. Tetsuro visits a planet where the economy has fallen apart and everyone begs for food. Tetsuro contemplates the value of hard work and how it imparts dignity to those who engage in it. Another planet shows Tetsuro a society where everyone obsesses about being the best in their profession and work so much that they lose sight of everything else. Tetsuro muses on how hard work must be balanced with leisure time and directed towards the proper goals. Hard work should help others and enrich one’s life. It should never consume a person’s every waking moment and shut them off from friends and family.
The main idea that connects these stories is Matsumoto’s desire to ask “What makes us human?” and “What really makes our lives better?” In humanity’s push to adopt mechanical bodies people seem to have forgotten the value of having a real flesh-and-blood body that is a part of the natural world. Almost endless life spans give people so much time to waste that they lose sight of what’s important. Tetsuro has many opportunities to consider whether or not he really wants a mechanical body and if a 2,000 year life span is really necessary to accomplish his dreams. Those who are concerned about too much philosophizing need not fear. The episodes have plenty of action and comedy to keep a viewer interested.
One problem with Galaxy Express 999’s lack of science-fiction details is difficult to overlook, however. The inconsistencies with how mechanical bodies are handled makes the central idea of the show suffer. In the first handful of episodes people with mechanical bodies are shown as looking very mechanical. They look like human-shaped robots with dials and bolts showing. Soon after and for most of the show, we see mechanical bodies that look so much like normal human bodies that Tetsuro is surprised to discover that people he’s met have mechanical bodies. Once Tetsuro reaches Planet Promethium mechanical bodies once again look very mechanical. Towards the beginning of the show Tetsuro slowly learns that mechanical bodies ultimately make people unhappy and have bad influences on their character. Later, Tetsuro meets good people who prove that mechanical bodies don’t have to have a negative influence on a person. But when he reaches Promethium it is once again demonstrated that mechanical bodies dramatically lower a person’s quality of life. Matsumoto’s main theme gets damaged by these inconsistencies.
Although the 2-part episode that wraps up the show leaves a lot of questions unanswered it did resolve many of the most important plot points. It’s easy for me to see why the manga and the television show it created became such a phenomenon in anime. Galaxy Express 999 has spawned many movies, OAVs and television shows. From the beginning until the most recent anime (2007) is a thirty year span. Not many anime franchises have that much staying power. Although it took 47 hours and 5 mintues of my time, I enjoyed Galaxy Express 999 and hope that other English-speakers discover this anime gem as I have.