(Hisses to a stop in an air-cold modified Delorean and leaps out wearing futuristic clothes.)
Great Scott! This next movie is all the way from 1979! An Anime that predates me that doesn’t end in “Racer”, “Tech”, or “Tron”!
Actually, I’m not really sure if this one can qualify as “junk”, even if it was one of the movies scrounged up on the old “Sci-Fi Festival of Anime”. I heard it got a modern reboot that expanded it into a full series not too long ago, it features incredibly-old-classic Anime characters Captain Harlock and Queen Emeraldas. Heck…this is one of the few animes I’ve seen that’s a crossover or, at least, an expanded universe. I myself only saw it recently and, unfortunately, I only caught the American dub…which is kind of a sin to me personally, but ah well.
Not many animes have a “Disney-esque” feel to it. For one thing, Japan seems to think kids can handle a bit more heavy stuff in some situations. And usually if they’re going to go in the direction of “goofy”, they go all the way for the age demographic. Therefore, when I finally saw this film after years of seeing it on media…I was a bit stunned that its theme was a tad deep and the situation a bit unsettling.
Without further ado, let’s jump right in…
“Galaxy Express 999”
The biggest shock about this movie at the onset is its runtime: almost 2 hours and 12 minutes. WOW. Even “Akira”, which was jumbo-sized by anime standards, only clocks in at about 2 hours. And this film doesn’t really spend much time “meandering” either. It genuinely moves fairly quickly, officially making it one of the rarest genres of Anime stand-alone movies: an epic.
The plot seems to start off rather simplistic and almost “kiddish” looking, but masks some pretty heavy stuff. It’s in the distant future where, surprise-surprise, it’s a Cyberpunk world split into ever-widening haves and have-nots. Only in this setup, the rich and well-off have taken up a new pasttime: converting themselves into humanoid machines. As unsettling as this might seem to you and me, it’s considered a dream-come-true to most humans who are lesser off. After all, machines don’t get hungry or cold, never get sick, never age, and never die, and when you live a poverty-stricken existence, that sounds pretty good. The main character is a kid named Tetsuro (voiced by Saffron “Every Kid in Anime” Henderson before she voice acted any other anime) whose mother was murdered by a psychotic “robot noble” who resides in a transdimensional castle and whose favorite pastime is killing non-roboticized humans and mounting them as trophies. He’s obsessed with gaining a robot body to enjoy all the benefits it brings and to get revenge on the robot who murdered his mother.
To do this, he wants to get on board the “Galaxy Express 999”, an intergalactic train which, true to its title, takes passengers from Earth in the Milky Way galaxy all the way to the Andromeda galaxy. As the planet at the end of the line of the Andromeda galaxy gives people robot bodies for free, he wants to get on board. This leads to him stealing a pass worth over 2,000,000 US Dollars which, naturally, gets the attention of the police, but also of a mysterious blond-haired woman name Maetel (voiced by Kathleen Barr…also in her first role, yet sounding neither like the Great and Powerful Trixie nor Chrysalis) who Tetsuro notices looks identical to his dead mother in spite of her having been deceased for years. When he collapses from exhaustion from running, she rescues him and take him to a hotel room in the city and, on awakening, offers him a legitimate pass on board the train on one condition: that he allows her to accompany him the entire way. More interested in his ambitions than what this mysterious woman may be after, including when she freely reveals she’s used a device to read his dreams/memories and seems to be talking to someone else whenever she thinks she’s alone, he agrees.
The rest of the movie is an abridged version of the source material. Tetsuro goes to various worlds where he gradually becomes stronger through the adventures and experiences he encounters on each one. Gradually he begins to learn more about not only the person he’s pursuing but the true nature of what’s behind everyone who’s converted themselves into robots. Eventually his goals will change dramatically as he discovers more and more about this mysterious world he’s heading too, and start to question just who Maetel is and if she’s really there to help him or has something far more insidious in mind.
Before I went through the whole plot, but I edited that out to avoid spoilers since the first time I posted this. What’s my verdict? Well…this film kind of struck my mood.
Sure, it’s silly, contrived, weak on the plot, and downright creepy at times, but it’s still fun. It’s rather unsettling when Tetsuro finally reaches the castle of the “robot noble” and sees the stuffed remains of his own mother hanging from a wall like a deer’s head. Some of Maetel’s interactions with Tetsuro are kind of creepy too. Unless Tetsuro suffers from a severe growth deficiency, it’s safe to assume he hasn’t even hit puberty yet. Hence, when Maetel, clearly older than him by a generation, frequently oscillates between behavior that could be motherly or romantic, it’s borderline pedophilia. A particular scene that sticks out in my mind is on arrival on freezing Pluto, since Maetel’s attire is fur-trimmed and winter-based, she actually opens up her coat, pulls Tetsuro close to her, and wraps it around both of them. This might be a “touching” scene if it’s not heavily implied that Maetel is wearing nothing under that coat and neither the filmmakers nor the characters seem to be able to decide if this is supposed to be a “motherly” scene or a “romantic” one.
But that said, it’s an interesting little movie that had a bit more to it than I expected. Films dealing with the subject of what makes a robot a human and what mankind might sacrifice in its quest for immortality is nothing new. “Blade Runner” and “Ghost in the Shell” both touched on that. But seeing as this movie came out in the 70s, well before either of those, it’s a bit ahead of its time. Although it plays out like a hastily-cut-and-pasted anime series shortened to a bit over two hours…and actually is that now that I think on it…it’s visually attractive and touching.
…Plus I can’t stop thinking “Princess Celestia” and “Chrysalis” watching it, especially since this is also Nicole Oliver’s first role who provides the voice of the character Queen Emeraldas. 😛 To be honest, Maetel sounds more like Celestia throughout the movie, but when Kathleen Barr also does the voice of a certain someone else, more of Chrysalis comes out. Dang…neither of their voices have changed in nearly 40 years.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
You’d get bored with it quick if you had to live with it forever, but it’s a good enough classic for a single lifetime.
What You Should Do With This DVD: Watch it with fellow otaku and then point out all the other times its referenced by other anime over the next 40 years.