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.
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.