Eastern Star / Discotek
Galaxy Express 999 is what people had in mind when they coined the term, ‘space opera.’
Created by the legendary manga artist/writer, Leiji Matsumoto, Galaxy Express 999 takes place in his signature universe, known amongst fans as the Matsumotoverse. Aside from sharing a cast of iconic characters, like Captain Herlock and Queen Emeraldas, the Matsumotoverse is also defined by a contrast: the depiction of the infinite possibilities of space, and the degraded squalor of humanity at the edge of extinction.
In Galaxy Express 999, we meet a young man named Tetsuro. He and his mother had a dream of saving enough money to buy tickets on the Galaxy Express 999, a highly advanced spaceship in the form of a steam engine train, so they can get the free mechanical replacement bodies that are offered on a distant plant, and thus live forever. Their dreams are cut short when Tetsuro’s mother is killed by Count Mecha, who (as you may guess by his name) has already replaced his body.
There seems to be a class divide between the haves (who have robot bodies) and the have nots (the lowly humans who live in the gutters).
Tetsuro, now a orphaned thief, carries on with his dream, but with a new goal in mind: to use his mechanical body to kill Count Mecha.
Luckily, he meets Maetel, a mysterious woman who offers him a ticket for the Galaxy Express. Maetel is like a non-flamboyant Doctor Who. She seems to know everything and everyone, and she takes a young human on a trip to show him the wonders of the galaxy.
Most of the movie plays out like a road trip. The 999 makes a number of stops, and on each one Tetsuro and Maetel have an adventure, and pick up some piece of information or equipment which bring him closer to his goal of avenging his mother.
Along the way, Tetsuro begins to consider what it means to be human, and what value life has in a universe converting itself to machines.
While there is nothing magical in the movie, it still has a strong fantasy feel to it. It brings to mind the Arthur C. Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” There’s a particularly effective scene on Pluto which would not be out of place in a horror movie, and yet its grounding in scientific possibility makes it eerier than it would be if it hinged on magic. Matsumoto has a knack for making space interesting. It is as fanciful as a 1940’s movie serial, but with a dirty realism
Galaxy Express 999 was made in 1979, so the animation is somewhat limited. Matsumoto’s characters designs are spindly and awkward, and are all slight modifications of four or five base models. But it’s a very distinctive look, and for some reason, it adds to realness. These are emaciated, frail humans, reaching far beyond their limits, not the muscular heroic space adventurers seen in other anime.
The movies were released on Blu Ray in Japan a few years ago, and if I had to guess, I think Eastern Star got the same masters. The movie is in anamorphic widescreen. Colors are well saturated, and the black outlines are solid. Video is completely unedited, with original titles and credits.
Matsumoto is one of the greats in anime history, an Galaxy Express 999 is, perhaps, his masterpiece. Eastern Stars presentation (the first time this movie has been available on DVD in North America) lacks flare, but is otherwise respectable.