Galaxy Express 999 Episode 1: The Train Ride Begins

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I tackled Galaxy Express 999 in my previous blog, but I would like to re-examine it here; this happens to be one of the seminal series in anime, based on a manga created by the now-legendary Matsumoto Leiji, and this is evident upon watching it. The anime (as well as the manga) came out during a time when science-fiction took major strides in addressing social issues – such sci-fi luminaries as Philip K. Dick utilized the genre as a means of examining heavy subjects, among them the intricacies of human identity in a world increasingly made technological with advancements in electronics. Here in Galaxy Express, the robotic becomes a sort of idealized form, the “next step” in human development and evolution – from the outset, one can see the social discrepancy between the well-heeled and the downtrodden in the opening segment. Here, one is introduced to the Earth of 2221, a world now thoroughly simultaneously entrenched in technological wonderment and social upheaval; Megaopolis becomes a veritable symbol of how society rarely changes, even though the planet is markedly different from what we’re familiar with.

For starts, the “above world” of the wealthy stands out for its opulence and cleanliness; for those living in this realm, they have numerous luxuries and amenities available to them, such as a marvelously extended lifespan and access to high technology. One can seen the robotic body so prevalent in this timeline – only the rich can afford something otherwise prohibitively expensive to the lower classes, and they take every opportunity afforded them here. As a consequence, they look rather “unnatural” and mechanical; No signs of nature exist in the upper world of Megalopolis, as the city subsumed and replaced nature with glass and metal artifices. By contrast, the world of the slums takes on a haunting greenish hue  – everything looks dirty and decrepit, with people living in poverty and starvation without any foreseeable hope for survival or upward mobility.

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When the episode moves on to Hoshino Testurō and his mother fleeing from Count Mecha and his gang, the human cost of mechanization becomes poignant – Count Mecha represents the dangers of replacing a mortal body with a robot one, as he seemingly no longer identifies as “human.” That he now hunts humans indicates that he sees himself as “above” the very species to which he once belonged; the mother and her son become game to Mecha, who hunts for sport. It speaks at once to the fragile nature of humanity – the universe of Galaxy Express offers a means of “transcending” one’s body by means of immortality (or, at least, a much longer life) through the robotic, but the full effect of transitioning from human to mechanical can be seen through Mecha’s actions. For what it’s worth, the robotic body truly offers a major psychological transformation to those who seek it; it reminds me of the central theme of identity in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which presents the Nexus-6 androids as having no empathy for themselves or living beings. Mecha reveals, through his callous, indifferent attitude towards humans, how he somehow lost a sense of empathic relationship to humans – as far as he is concerned, he can hunt humans with impunity, secure in his opinion that his “prey” occupy a low position on the social totem pole.

By contrast, Tetsurō and his mother see the robot as some sort of salvation from a harsh existence; the mother risked her own life to ensure her son would carry on and fulfill their shared wish for a robotic replacement, which had become the idealized form in Terran society for some time. The image of her being shot cements her own fragility, but her wish will carry on with her son, Tetsurō; he remains as the heir to a dream to leave this tumultuous world behind, looking forward to a new life where he would no longer have to worry about the ravages of a divided society based around wealth and access. The Galaxy Express 999 train becomes a beacon of hope for him – if he can get on the train, Tetsurō can get a free robot body at the end of his journey.

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Maetal is the first friendly face Tetsurō meets in the series, and the second protagonist; she welcomes Tetsurō into her home, offering shelter for the kid as he recovers from being in the snow for so long. She is quite tall and thin, a natural contrast to Mecha’s imposing mechanical presense – Maetal presents a warm, inviting atmosphere amidst the cold, unfeeling environment Tetsurō left behind, and the scene of the two in Maetal’s house shows this quite well. It is a ray of hope within the dangerous world that Earth became for the impoverished; Tetsurō feels comfortable here precisely because he is in good company.

When Tetsurō decides to confront Count Mecha at his estate, the shots become more frightening and closed as he guns down Mecha and his gang in revenge for his mother’s death; the enormous fireplace at the mansion appears behind Count Mecha as he discusses what he plans to do with the woman’s body, and everything looks rather dark and oppressive as a result. It looks like Tetsurō wandered into an entirely different realm – he brings the fight directly to Count Mecha on his own turf, a dimly-lit facade of wealth and lavishness that only serves to emphasize how Mecha physically and emotionally cut ties with the world around him. When Tetsurō’s vengeful actions end, the scene becomes one of destruction and death; Mecha could not protect himself from a single intrusive element, as he did not anticipate someone fighting back. The final screenshot above shows the end result of the one-sided battle – Mecha pleads for his life, but Tetsurō came here to give Mecha a dose of his own medicine. It’s a very tragic, poignant scene; Tetsurō momentarily had his anger control him, and now he has his own closure before he can continue on his journey.

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When Maetal and Tetsurō finally arrive at the 999 station, it comes as a major relief; they’ve been hounded by the police, and Tetsurō can start on his quest to achieve his dream. The choice of a steam locomotive grounds the series in history – it’s a C62, 49 of which were constructed between 1948 and 1949. As such, the 999 becomes more legendary, as it is the 50th in the line, built specifically for space travel; in a time where steam-powered trains are no longer the norm, it’s great to see such a classic locomotive in operation amongst the stars.

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