Tag Archives: Galaxy Express 999

Bridging The Gap: Longing For The Lyrical (Galaxy Express 999)

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To expound feelings about the upcoming tweets, I cannot help but feel like anime as a medium has long been teetering between iconographic storytelling and didactic overkill. And as a longtime viewer of many a show, it has come to mind that a big reason why so many shows tend to leave me cold, is that so many writers find themselves in some deep need to information dump, or hyper-explain the motivations behind the story, rather than illustrate them by way of the power inherent. While a great many series (see; Evangelion, Kill la Kill, etc.) make their mark by being pretty open with their inner thought process, some of the more interesting, and often impactful series find ways to allow the art and animation do much of the legwork.

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When considering the medium itself, this seems kind of absurd, really. When there is this much freedom and creative possibility, one cannot underestimate the power of a pondered image. Or the potency of a great allegory. Or the emotional power of a well-imagined tale.

So when this longing makes its way back into my mind, the works that first come to mind are the ones of Osamu Tezuka, and of Leiji Matsumoto. But to make my point clearer, let’s consider Rin Taro’s 1979 Galaxy Express 999 film. Regardless of whether we are talking about the original manga, or the classic TV series, the themes of growing up in a civilization where machine people are the 1%, and the rest of humanity are relegated to last class status, there is a power within it that cuts deeper than most. A huge part of its enduring legacy lies in Matsumoto’s achingly honest look at growing up in an industrialized, capitalist civilization. Where roles are determined via often heavily priced means.

To watch many a recent anime series (especially the most popular), one might occasionally see more collectivist themes of working together, aiming for an idealized “top”, or perhaps even romantic love as some manner of ideal. But what 999 posits, is that youth is that one time where all beings are free to self-identify before the machine of the corporatized adult world molds us into functioning parts of society. While the television series and manga do quite well in elaborating on this as the core theme, the film version does a phenomenal job of taking us from point to point with almost Gilliam-esque levels of subconscious wit and poetics.

For the unfamiliar, GE 999 tells the story of Tetsuro Hoshino, a human boy and street urchin who finds himself determined to avenge the murder of his mother by way of a machine man who hunts humans for sport. Hearing of the legends of “free” spirits such as Captain Harlock and Emeraldas, he is inspired to attain a ticket to the fabled Galaxy Express, a means to set off beyond the bounds of a machine dominant Earth, and to attain a mechanical body. His reasoning being that in order to avenge the death of his mother, this is the only way to be able to face the killer, Count Mecha. During a bungled attempt at stealing a ticket to the legendary space train, Tetsuro runs into, and is subsequently saved by the mysterious, Maetel. An almost ethereal beauty who offers him the opportunity of a lifetime, and grants him a pass onto the 999. It doesn’t hurt that the luminous maturity of Maetel seems to remind Tetsuro of his long lost mother, the only person who cared for him in those desolate early days.

From planet to planet, his journey into manhood truly begins.

The means by which the film assembles these allegories is legendarily aggressive. Even when most shows grind to a halt with explanations for character motivations, there is a propulsive sense of knowing that allows the flashbacks to work with energy and efficiency. We are brought up to speed rather quickly, and are quickly off onto Tetsuro’s voyage of self discovery. And while the show certainly states Matsumoto’s thoughts pretty openly, there are also fantastic tidbits of character and events that illustrate these concerns. It becomes less about being told what to feel, and more about Tetsuro learning what it is to “grow up” in a universe where this means casting away your truest self. It is no accident that the machine people portrayed at the train station are cold to others, spitting as they regard those who cannot afford a ticket as lesser beings. This very simple moment, is at the very heart of the film’s worries; that we have turned technological and economic hegemony as a closed-off value scale, rather than a shared goal.

We see more of this “forsaken humanity” theme in the characters of Shadow, of Count Mecha, Ryuz, and of Queen Promethium as the film plays out. Most of the adult cast of 999 is bound by this seemingly ineffable fate that a machine body is what is necessary to make an impact on the world. Be it through sheer willpower, or by way of inheritance, there is a constant conflict between what Tetsuro believes to be his destiny, and what choices he actually has through the course of his life. Starting off as an angry kid with a wish, he is confronted by adults who either worked, or clawed their way to machinehood, only to become shells of their former selves. So when he does confront the truth of his end point, the tragedy is threefold as familial duty becomes a means to an end. But humanity always seems to leave a mark, leading to a climax that remains as powerful now, as it was in 1979. The connection to theatrical audiences then was palpable. They could see what was happening here as an extension of what was truly happening in the real world.

Having lived through a similar situation to Tetsuro’s, there is much to take away from the encounter at Andromeda. Having been in relationships torn between the heart, and familial expectation is a very real thing. And even though the dressings of 999 are that of the most classic space operas, there is a universal nature about the piece that speaks volumes by mere virtue of showing. From the sprawl of an Earth ravaged by corporate mindlessness, to a machine planet, fueled by those with their hearts closed off by way of the “order of things”, there is a very real set of concerns bursting at the seams through Matsumoto and Taro’s vision. They may have even foreseen the breakdown that was to come, and we are witnessing to this very day. Humanity can only see itself as a closed off being for so long. Youth is a check that can only be cashed by way of feeling matters through, and actually experiencing the world through tactile means.

Matsumoto and company saw the future, and had a warning to share..

In summation, anime is an extension of the film medium, and is capable of so much more than is often being churned out. This has always been the case. It’s just more exciting to see when the powers that be allow for such expression to eke itself out. Far too often, the themes that are shared are often in the societal narrative, or some form of shapeless, emotional backlash. And rarely is it done with clarity or grace. There is a great potential in animation, but is often at the mercy of those who would see it as part of a creaky, mass production machine.

Analog Diaries III: The Path To Legend

The life of a responsible older brother of a hyperactive eleven year-old was practically a full time job by the time the VHS maelstrom was upon us. And growing up in a community, mostly divided between wealthy retirees & small-town denizens, there was little place for those with tastes outside the typical. And as there were many a time when our video rental binges would become not unlike a romanticized trip to a junkyard. ( filled to the seams with crap, yet host to a bevvy of hidden treasures) For every Suspiria, we’d find four or five Witchcraft‘s. And even at this point, I wasn’t one-hundred percent about this anime thing.

It didn’t help when looking for titles that were dubbed for western audiences, the dearth of these led to some pretty interesting discoveries.
Most notable in this sweepstakes run were the ones we found, carrying the logos of Celebrity Home Video’s Just For KIDS emblazoned on them. And these little hauls of fun came bearing images & characters that were familiar, but upon viewing them, they sure weren’t the icons I remembered them being.

The first in this series of releases that had us doubling over was their version of the Captain Harlock origin feature, Arcadia Of My Youth(1982). Recut and dubbed, the film was repackaged as Vengeance Of The Space Pirate. Now as I had been accustomed to the tales of Harlock via friends & tapes of the tv show long ago, it was pretty clear kids were getting a huge dose of false advertising.(Not to mentin the kind of violence on the cover that would never fly in this day and age. Han Solo this! ) Missing roughly forty minutes of its epic running time, the film whisks by at a Cliff’s Notes clip, and features some oddball, yet competent (for its time) dubbing. If one can survive the stilted dialogue delivery, they may not be able to contain themselves as the newly liberated space cruiser Arcadia leaves a locked down Earth to a song only the worst Barry Manilow-lover would go nuts for. We’re on the verge of a crucial, emotionally fulfilling sequence, and all we get is theme music best fitting of a 2:30 in the morning Vegas show after a sixteen hour sucker’s streak at the tables. (If I could share this monstrosity with you via a video –Someone get on this. This pain must be shared!) Even as the cut is somewhat tolerable(albeit a little too literal at points), the film is missing so much of what makes ‘s film such a vital piece of Leiji Matsumoto history.

All that was left post this initial viewing, was me in disbelief, and a very out of sorts little brother.

Could’ve been worse…It could’ve been THIS.

Which leads us to a tape I ran into at one of the local Blockbusters that grabbed my eyes with a mad fury unrivaled.

Clash Of The---whaaa?
Clash Of The---Wut?

That’s right. Celebrity also had the home video rights to the legendary Macross 1984: Ai Oboete Iimasuka? (Do You Remember Love?), and really gave it the business. A chop-shop treatment at best, this not-Macross Macross is the anime equivalent to a victim of Dr. Herbert West; Mangled , bizarre, and ultimately only good at haunting the living. Not only is the film missing some crucial moments (including one very significant death scene – seriously, if you’re going to sell this to kids, it might be best to know what you’re selling.), but it also features dubbing that is the very definition of….Awkward.

Sound familiar?(I vaguely remember the same studio and actors being used in the dub for HK favorites such as the original Police Story. ) In short, it was nice to have a home version of the Macross feature, but to settle for such a painfully wasted opportunity. It’s something that still stings to this day. If only they had taken care of this situation long ago. C’est La vie.

As a good guardian for those weekends while the mother unit was busy keeping us well fed and raised, we had our fair share of experiences such as these that kind of gave us a gauge from which to measure how video companies were treating something so regionally based. And even as the claws of anime love had yet to dig irrevocably into my being, there was a growing curiosity within me to continue to look into what was so attractive about it. And how was I to know that everything was soon to take on shapes never before witnessed when a little movie came over, and began playing in major metropolitan areas throughout the country.

Being a kid in Theater, and up for the chance to check out something outside the ordinary, I was invited by classmates to catch this film in a new theater in Palm Springs that also served as the region’s art house location. Even as there had been some talk about the film’s impact that had steadily growing over the west, nothing could prepare me for the sheer visceral impact of Katsuhiro Otomo’s little movie , AKIRA.

A film that truly requires no intro of any kind, this one viewing evoked feelings for the medium that had yet been experienced. And that is very much in the manner as films such as AKIRA must be digested as, an experience. Not being familiar with the incredible source material, it was something akin to allowing ones’ self to be absorbed into the chaotic world of these characters, and to drink in the dystopic fury of what must have been brewing deeply within many folks in Japan at the time. The film felt like a much needed purging of emotions in a rapturous package that helped illuminate my mind to the possibilities of manga art, and its animated extensions. Coming out of that theater, dizzy, and drunk with love for the film, it became something akin to what was referred by Professor Brian O’Blivion in Videodrome as “a new part of the brain”.

And it is also possible that in those pre Subs Only Watching/Japanese studying days, that it was the sensational dub licensed by Streamline Pictures from Kodansha  that helped seal the deal. Utilizing only a handful of familiar-sounding actors (These guys, anyone?) to play what is essentially an epic-sized cast was no mean feat. And even as a great deal of it is played for camp value, it at least was translated & performed well enough for many to accept it, and embrace the achievement that Otomo and company had brought to the world stage.

Aside from being such a landmark piece of work, it became something of a prophecy for the relationship between us siblings. While both of us being well-versed in film as kids, few films would ever have the same kind of jarring effect that this one had, especially once Orion & Streamline brought the film to American VHS not too much later. And once this film came into our possession, it felt as if little was to remain the same for the both of us.