As the 99 traverses space, more and more of the universe becomes accessible to Tetsurō; as we can imagine, this experience is entirely new to him, who spent his formative years on a planet ravaged by social divides. As I mentioned in my commentary on the first episode, Tetsurō grew up on Earth, where his perception of robotics was heavily influenced by the major social-cultural divisions that emerged – the wealthy could easily afford cybernetic replacements for their bodies, while the poor languish in a social underworld far away from the cleanliness of the urban center, and Count Mecha exemplified the dangers inherent in interpreting oneself as “above” humanity. By now, Tetsurō and Maetal traveled quite a distance, but still remain in the solar system; Mars illustrated how people could maintain social expectations built on Earth, as the robot became a pervasive element of “improvement” throughout the system. As one might expect, Tetsurō remains driven to obtain a cyborg body – he made a promise to his mother to endure any hardship to get on the 999, and his experiences thus far helped him open his eyes to a broader perspective. After all, he starts to understand that other planets and moons have their own distinct cultures and outlooks on life, much like Earth does; Titan will enlighten him further, as we shall soon see.
By this point, Tetsurō’s adjusted quite well to life on the train; he notices the differences between it and his previous life on Earth, of course (explicitly mentioning how he never had any time for a decent meal back home), so his impression of the 999 is positive. He even gets to visit the engine room, the heart of the 999, a luxury afforded to holders of a Galaxy Express ticket – as one can see in the episode (and directly addressed by Tetsurō above, who asks about it), the train runs by itself on highly advanced technology, without the need of an engineer overseeing it. The sight of the uninhabited locomotive raises some key aspects of galactic society in the early 23rd century, as depicted in the series – humans somehow came into contact with aliens, or at least their technological developments, and applied said innovations to space travel and the machines capable of ferrying passengers among the stars. As Maetal explains, human knowledge alone didn’t achieve this – according to her, there exists inventions aboard the 999 that go beyond human comprehension, even though humans likely had to understand at least part of the extraterrestrial tech in order to construct an entire space-faring train with it built in. That it remains outside the knowledge base of humans draws upon the image of an advanced alien culture leagues ahead of Earth; as Maetal introduced the concept in this episode, the identity of the aliens have not been given, but their presence is unavoidable, given that they produced the technological backbone of the 999. One can also see the Terran cultural conceits brought to the train – even though it is constructed with non-Earth machinery and electronics, the 999 maintains the image of a steam locomotive, specifically a C-62 (a narrow-gauge type, 48 of which were built between 1948 and 1949).
One of the important concepts of the series is the ubiquitous nature of technology, and how it shapes our perceptions of the world (and galaxy) around us; the 999 happens to be self-driven, a logical extension of the robotic in Galaxy Express 999‘s heady atmosphere of cybernetics and the far-reaching nature of technological advancement. Tetsurō and Maetal both have direct experience with the corrupting influence of technology, and the social ramifications of the direction it took – remember Count Mecha, who practically dispensed with his previous human identity (and empathy towards his fellow humans) as he adopted a cyborg one. The 999 represents the positive, hopeful nature of technology – it carries passengers to their destination, a distant planet where robotic bodies are produced for free, without any sort of judgement call. As it moves away from Earth, however, one sees the major obstacles and dangers ahead – technological advancement still brings with it new (and familiar) hurdles to overcome, such as the prevalent notion of the robot as the ideal, and the continuing issue of how one defines “human” in a world where the physical body is interchangeable.
Claire, the frail, glass-bodied woman whose sole appearance comes in this episode, exemplifies the concept of humanity in the context of a transformation. As she explains, her mother forced her into making the transition to a new body – a very different situation from that of those we’ve already seen, who voluntarily underwent the robotic process, due to unspoken societal expectations of a robot body somehow being “superior” to that of a mortal one. Tetsurō may find Claire’s body beautiful, but it comes with a tragic explanation; because her mother made the decision for her, Claire expresses her dismay at having a new body that she doesn’t really call her own. She wants to return to a mortal body, because she was forced into her current position – she had no decision in that regard, and she wishes to have some control in her life. This contrasts with Tetsurō, who did make a decision to leave his world behind to pursue his (and his mother’s) dream – however, to be fair, Tetsurō’s decision came at a time when he existed at the lowest rungs of the social ladder on Earth, where his mother died at the hands of Count Mecha, a man who had far greater social mobility. The scene of Tetsurō’s mother’s death is frame in such a fashion as to bear a philosophical weight; is it really a good idea to forego one’s humanity in favor of an idealized for that shows itself to only perpetuate social hierarchies? Tetsurō’s decision reflects a pervasive attitude towards a glamorization of the robotic, where a cybernetic form enters the social sphere as a model of social achievement; Claire’s situation illustrates the tragic consequences of over-glorification, as her mother, vain as she is, forces her daughter to become something she did not want.
This part of the episode culminates in Claire’s sacrifice, so that Tetsurō may live; this moment occurs during the tense ride through the tunnel, a where the electricity goes out, a dramatic moment that tests Tetsurō’s resolve. Such a scene takes place in close-ups, which is fitting, as it displays the cramped, claustrophobic atmosphere of the ghoul’s attempt to spirit Tetsurō away – it’s a reminder that anything can happen in the depths of space, and Tetsurō is far away from his home. Claire’s sacrifice cements her resolve to protect someone she sees the good in; by blowing herself up and reducing herself to crystal shards, she dispatches the ghoul, giving the boy a chance to continue his journey. This happens only three episodes in – Claire represents the sort of selflessness in the face of danger that Tetsurō never saw before. After all, we first see him initially at the mercy of Count Mecha, his mother killed by the cyborg; his revenge killing of Mecha occurs in the first episode, a swift retaliation against those forces who epitomize the social trend of indifference towards (or outright violence against) the poorer echelons. Claire gave her life in order to help Tetsurō achieve his ultimate goal, and this reminds him that good exists in the universe, no matter where you are.
The second half of the episode revolves around Tetsurō and Maetal’s visit to Titan; from the outset, we get another glimpse into a heady society, this one without any laws inhibiting the freedoms of individuals to do whatever they want (including shooting others). Understandably, Tetsurō doesn’t understand this development; he even pleads with those around him to help when a man (with a full cybernetic body) is shot dead in front of him. The old woman who helps him, after he is hit by a tranquilizer dart, explains that the city indeed has no laws aside from one – the Paradise Law, which prohibits people from infringing upon the freedom of others. Within the context of this society, the pursuit of freedom is taken to (perhaps) an extreme conclusion, and Tetsurō must navigate difficult social terrain when saving Maetal; with everyone free from legal restraints, it looks like a peaceful planet on the surface (Maetal even says so), but instead it comes across as a dangerous place rife with strife and weird behavior (such as the man who hunts people for food). Like Mars before it, Titan is a place whose social situation is contextualized through the use of technology – although Maetal initially praises it, describing Titan as the sort of place that exemplifies how technology can offer a good society, she recognizes it as a den of iniquity and recklessness (hence her carrying a gun). She can’t fully trust the place at all, as people would literally do whatever they want in a society run rampant with no laws regulating things; the old woman emphasizes this point, as she tells Tetsurō he can murder her without a second’s thought. Instead of giving in to the law of the land, however, Tetsurō saves Maetal from the Grape Valley soldiers; he has his head on his shoulders, after all.
As hinted at earlier, Titan becomes another place for which Tetsurō learns about galactic societies – here, he sees the rampant lawlessness built into the fabric of a planet’s being. Earth acted as a precedent here – technology marches on, but social concepts remain in place. With Earth, it’s a hierarchical division of society, with the rich physically above the poor; on Mars, an Old West-style frontier; on Titan, a lawless society where people are free to do whatever they please. Galaxy Express 999 gradually builds on its main theme of a world where technology reigns supreme, but without any real social movement to help alleviate the great hierarchical nature of the universe.