Title: Galaxy Express 999 (TV)
Length: 113 x 24 minute episodes
Genre: Sci-fi, drama, comedy
Year of release: 1979
Actually, it wasn’t long before I started this blog that I found myself starting this Goliath of a series. Maybe a month or so before? While I’ve reviewed the 50~ episode Hugtto Precure, and am making my way through another 50~ episode series in Star Twinkle Precure, I’m something of a newbie when it comes to longer running shows. My hands are up: I stick to short shows. They’re nice in that you can wash your hands of them quickly and move onto the next one, which is really great for buffing my numbers and chasing that feeling of completion. The lack of that ability to cross something off my list easily has given me something of a phobia. Many long-runners are largely episodic or arc-based and usually contain regular doses of satisfaction, thus this issue shouldn’t be much of a problem. However, Galaxy Express 999 (henceforth, GE999) is a bit different; an almost purely episodic series that uses its gigantic runtime to spin a much larger mystery and a subtle story of Tetsurou’s growing up. While it has episodic moments of gratification, it also watches as a gigantic adventure. Quite the trial-by-fire for somebody afraid of longer running series, wouldn’t you say?
It actually surprised me how fast Galaxy Express 999 moves in its opening handful of episodes, considering the sheer amount of time it has to play with. Anime productions are a fickle thing, and it’s likely that the runtime wasn’t set in stone – but it is definitely something of a jarring point to hold against this series. The rather misfortunately designed Tetsurou (a face only a mother could love!) lives on Earth in the poor underbelly of society, where him and his mother are working hard to make enough cash to pay for a ticket to the titular Galaxy Express 999 – an intergalactic train (roll with it) running on an intergalactic railway (roll with it) that will take them to Andromeda, where they can get free cyberisations and gain eternal life. Sadly, the kickoff for the whole show is his mother being slaughtered by the horse-riding robot lord (roll with it!), Count Mecha. A mysterious benefactor named Matael offers a Galaxy Express 999 ticket to Tetsurou after saving him from the snow all alone (with the caveat that she will travel with him on the journey), but Tetsurou takes her gun and slaughters Count Mecha first. This might sound like I’m entering spoiler territory, but really, this is the setup. This is the opening episode. That’s how fast it moves, and while it settles down into a more comfortable rhythm of seeing planets on a near-episodic basis, the frantic pacing takes a little while to die down. In fact, a few episodes later was an episode split into two separate halves; in its first, following a ‘glass’ woman who saves Tetsurou from a mystical dream (that later got a 15 minute OVA reimagining in ‘Glass no Clair’), and the latter half of the episode features Maetel being kidnapped by insect-robot people and eventually getting rescued (seriously, just roll with it)… that’s the extent that it might feel it rushes through its ideas at the onset. The show makes all haste to set Tetsurou up with some key traits, like his iconic gunslingin’ pistol and straw hat, and then some moments to go gunsling. A ton goes down, basically. It can feel a little exhausting, and even though that feeling is worth savouring – after all, Tetsurou, whisked from his prior life, is probably feeling many similar emotions, – it perhaps jumps the gun a little.
Thankfully, that feeling subsides… somewhat. I say somewhat, because it’s finally time to talk about the elephant in the room: the styling. The mastermind behind GE999 was definitely mixing their favourite cocktails – it’s hard sci-fi with a Western twist. Space, they decided, needed cowboys (proper cowboys, in fact, as a much later episode actually features cattle herding in low gravity). Likewise, many episodics feature gunslingers, saloons, rolling tumbleweeds etc. There’s even some poor explanations to how the train works in space, just to justify the style. Despite the show’s love of all-things cowboys, it goes further with its bizarre inspiration; one such episode features a talking dinosaur; there’s a surprisingly non-sci-fi reimagining of One Thousand and One Nights; there’s a planet of cave-people… GE999 is, at times, a very hard pill to swallow. You can easily go along with it, yes, but it will absolutely throw you for a loop first!
Many of its episodics, too, are gigantic in scope. We almost never get a chance to stop and sight-see on this railway. No, as much as Tetsurou would like to just eat ramen and chill out with space cowboys and talking dinosaurs, a lot of stuff happens. Now, I say stuff in italics because there’s a handful of formulaic situations that unfurl in the unique environments. These are often somebody being kidnapped or Tetsurou or Maetel’s passes being stolen but range all the way to Tetsurou fighting facists and becoming a key figure in social uprisings. There’s never a dull moment in GE999, even if the situations and settings are so utterly bizarre that a sight-seeing exercise might feel needed.
Now the real key to it all is the snottily nosed Tetsurou. While far too many episodes feature him meeting an episodic antagonist, explaining his sobstory of a backstory to them and them having a change of heart, the real appeal is his constantly shaped, reaffirmed and challenged ideals. The boy idolises the concept of eternal life, and believes that eternal life will give him eternal happiness, further, too, is his love of justice and doing the right thing as influenced by his upbringing in the slums. The planets he goes to challenges his entire way of thinking, and the boy grows a great deal throughout the extremely long journey – though it’s also fair to say that there’s a few times where his development backtracks or repeats moreso than reaffirms or changes. But the way he contemplates the grander lessons is often the most beautiful thing about this series.
One of the figures that got mentioned a lot throughout GE999 was the ‘nice bandit’, though I never really bought into his niceness and thought the leads were just being too easily persuaded (bribed by plotting perhaps?). However, characters such as the warrior on the fossil planet, through to the eternal soldier, through to the artist at the end, all have a major impact on Tetsurou’s way of thinking, and he comes to reevaluate everything he knows due to them. Some of these people can really challenge the show’s tone dramatically too – often in good ways, such as Tetsurou learning that death is as beautiful as life from the lover’s suicide episode, but then there’s also the mysteriously invisible Conductor’s ex-girlfriend storyline about a girl that throws pride away for money and leaves a trail of betrayals which… in the 21st century, comes across as lame incel whining, but thankfully the lesson that Tetsurou takes away from this is more about following dreams than not trusting women.
Throughout it all, there are some really incredible episodes. I’ve already alluded to the ones about social uprisings, and these are often the ones I fell most in love with – particularly the ones given double-episode breathing room. The Laboratory of Eternal War is a two-parter on a rather Orwellian planet, with rich, privileged people watching human guinea pigs fight a never-ending war (that, naturally, Tetsurou tries to bring an end to, but human nature sadly intervenes), is one such episode that I won’t forget. Another – The Witch of Plated City, a two-parter about a planet where everything in upper-class society is plated in gold (a society that, naturally, Tetsurou becomes a key figure in toppling). These episodes steeped in social metaphors and satire are GE999’s bread and butter. Capitalist greed leads to ecological damage and cannot be easily protested! one episode argues rather compellingly, for example, and many episodes make strong and surprisingly balanced arguments for their cases. Moreover, many episodes are more philosophical than political, waxing lyrical about life, time, and death, and are equally very memorable. The other… I want to say about 10-20% of episodes are much less focused, and are when GE999 falters.
The thing that makes GE999 rather spectacular as a long running show, though, is how it prolongs the mystery of Maetel. Who is this mysterious woman, where does she get her worldliness and combat proficiency from? Important questions, and ones that the show makes a point of asking many times. The drip-drip-drip of information manages to keep this mystery intriguing throughout 90% of the show, with only the tiniest of bits of information to placate with. Now, some of that is because the episodics themselves are almost always interesting enough to keep any potential frustrations at bay, but even beyond that, it’s really impressive how GE999 manages to keep this mystery up. However, Maetel does leave a rather frustrating impact on the show, as her motherly nature is twisted by the constant discussion by all parties, directorial or character, of her attractiveness. It’s like there’s a creator-level Oedipal Complex – which is extra weird when you consider how many people it takes to make a show like this.
I think I’ve mused before that TV or the more humble anime productions didn’t discover the art of decent sound production until the mid-2000’s, but GE999 is one of the worse offenders I’ve come across. The frantic situations mean that Tetsurou is often screaming or shouting, and not only does his actor use the same timbre throughout all 100+ episodes, but the sound recording clips each time. The loss of well recorded sounds extends to the effects, which are scratchy sounding versions of the usual cheesy sound effects you’ve heard in other science fiction media for years upon years. Beyond that, the visuals leave a little to be desired, though they’re generally consistent enough – though the weird inclusion of a lot of nudity can be off-putting. A few episodes let the show strut its stuff, such as the warrior who uses a katana, but these sorts of things are few and far between. If you can be forgiving for nearly 2 years of continuous airing and the dated animation production techniques (and random excuses to draw Maetel in her underwear and Tetsurou’s penis), then it’s a passable affair.
Galaxy Express 999 had a rather cheesy song playing during the credits of a movie reimagining of one of its episodes, with English lyrics singing ‘Galaxy Express 999 will take you on a journey, a never ending journey…”, and, well, yes, it’s indeed a never-ending journey. The journey of Galaxy Express 999 uses the sheer length of the series to leave a genuinely important impact on its main character – that is regularly reflected upon. There’s no shortage of setbacks to GE999 that hold it back, but it’s an unforgettable adventure nonetheless. Now, will I be watching more long shows? You can bet I will, especially if they can use their duration as well as GE999 did.