Now that I’ve finally completed all 113 episodes of Galaxy Express 999 (1978) I can understand creator Leiji Matsumoto’s ideal of heroism. Matsumoto anime has been entertaining audiences for thirty years now and I can understand the appeal. Matsumoto’s stories are full of strong heroes fighting against impossible odds but that’s not the whole of the stories’ appeal. Matsumoto is a person who tries to get to the bottom of the concept of heroism. What motivates a hero? What does a hero give up when he faces evil?
Most of Matsumoto’s heroes are lonely, quiet souls who wander the stars tirelessly carrying out their vows to help those in need. Although these stories have a timeless appeal Tetsuro, the hero of Galaxy Express 999, shows us a different kind of hero that helps us see Matsumoto’s true ideals of heroism.
Every hero needs a villain but a hero that holds to his ideals for a lifetime needs more. A lasting hero needs a rugged frontier – a place where danger is the order of the day and people in need are numerous. Matsumoto grew up watching American Westerns on Japanese television. Wild west themes are constantly cropping up in all of Matsumoto’s science-fiction adventures but the cowboy hats and six shooters aren’t the only thing Matsumoto borrowed from the genre. Matsumoto understood that the stories he took in as a youth took place in a wild frontier. A less civilized place where society’s order was difficult to enforce and strong-willed people could have their way. Matsumoto decided space would be that frontier for his stories. Whether it’s Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock or any other Matsumoto science-fiction story space is where adventure is to be found.
Young Tetsuro soon learns that only the tough survive the 999’s journey through a vast and lawless frontier that lies between the few civilized planets of the galaxies. Forged in the furnace of mankind’s last frontier, Tetsuro develops into a hero that can stand tall next to Captain Harlock and others. But a ten year old boy such as Tetsuro could never hold his own in any kind of fight with Captain Harlock. If the ability to mop the floor with enemy troops doesn’t make one a hero what does?
For Matsumoto, the two qualities every hero must possess are compassion and determination. Determination enables a hero to develop the qualities needed to save others. Compassion is necessary to motivate a hero.
Thoughout the episodes of Galaxy Express 999 we see how misguided people can become if they fail to develop both of Matsumoto’s cardinal virtues. Those who have determination but lack compassion become tyrants. Pursuing their dreams without concern for others makes them into dictators that oppress whole planets or schemers that travel between the stars ruining people’s lives. Those with compassion but without determination are sacrificed thoughlessly by tyrants or manipulated by schemers. Though their hearts may be right, people who lack determination can never attain their dreams and have to watch as their lives go nowhere.
Captain Harlock didn’t start out as an unstoppable warrior. He was a man with compassion in his heart who saw others suffering. His determination allowed him to set his mind on gaining the skills needed to become the person other people needed – a warrior. His great determination allowed him to develop great skill in combat, stategy, leadership and all the other qualities he brought to bear on the Mazones and other villains.
Hoshino Tetsuro from Galaxy Express 999 may seem like a different sort of person than Captain Harlock but to Matsumoto he was equally a hero. Tetsuro had a big heart and simply couldn’t stand still when he saw people suffering. Constantly throughout the show Maetel is telling Tetsuro to mind his own business and stay out of trouble but Tetsuro doesn’t listen. He just can’t ignore people in need. Tetsuro discovers during his journey between the stars that the determination needed to stand up to evil was in his heart. Although a boy of only ten years he acquires a warrior’s pistol and uses it fearlessly along with his wits. His courage never falters in the face of danger. He stands by those who need him and always finds the solution needed to save the day.
It isn’t being tough that defeats evil. It isn’t a desire for adventure that leads people to bravery. Compassion for others and the determination to never give in makes a person into a hero. That’s what Matsumoto was really trying to say in his stories. It’s a lesson I hope we all take to heart.