A journey to the stars
Two of the greatest anime films of all time are finally available on Blu-ray. Director Rintaro and creator Leiji Matsumoto certainly each had their ups and downs, but there is little room for debate that 1979’s Galaxy Express 999 and its 1981 sequel Adieu, Galaxy Express 999 are masterworks. That’s pronounced “Three Nine,” by the way.
In a future where Earth is ecologically ravaged and poverty runs rampant save for a privileged few—listen, that was “the future” in the 70s, okay?—young orphan Tetsuro Hoshino dreams of someday boarding the Galaxy Express 999, a spacefaring steam locomotive whose route includes Andromeda, a destination where one can transfer oneself into an immortal mechanized body free of charge. Only then will Tetsuro have enough power to get revenge on the one who murdered his mother on a trophy hunt: the dastardly ascot-wearing Count Mecha, whose Time Castle abode is capable of existing anywhere and when.
Tetsuro’s fortunes change upon encountering a mysterious and elegant woman, Maetel. She is, perhaps, the most idealized Leiji Matsumoto woman of all: tall and slender, with impossibly long blonde hair and wistful eyes. Maetel, whose stop is at the very end of the route, buys Tetsuro a ticket so she can have a travel companion … but does this woman who bears such resemblance to Tetsuro’s dead mother, possessing knowledge seemingly beyond her years, have some other motivation?
That’s how the two-film saga begins, anyway. The train stops at a variety of planets and moons where Tetsuro meets various humans, aliens, and machines whose insights and conditions inform his own, showcasing the potential downsides to immortality at the cost of one’s humanity. But unlike the quiet and contemplative Night on the Galactic Railroad, this space train voyage is primarily a melodramatic sci-fi Wild West-inspired adventure tale; Tetsuro quickly acquires one of the few weapons capable of killing a mechanized person, and it isn’t long before he starts crossing paths with the cast of Space Pirate Captain Harlock (note: there is TECHNICALLY no shared continuity between Matsumoto’s works, even though the main staff of these also did the Harlock TV series).
Subtext is for cowards, and be it through dialogue, narration, or song lyrics with fluent English pronunciation these films make no secret about it all representing a journey from boyhood to adulthood and the loss associated with it. By Adieu, Tetsuro finds himself embroiled within full-scale conflict between mankind and machine empire, as a phantom train looms along with the shadowy black knight Faust who’s, well, basically Darth Vader on account of The Empire Strikes Back being released in the interim between films.
Heralding a return to theatrical-quality animation for Toei Animation after a near-decade hiatus, both films look and sound fantastic, with a staff of now legendary talent assembled top to bottom, such as key animator Yoshinori Kanada and mecha designer Kazutaka Miyatake. Discotek Media’s extensive video restoration efforts make their release superior to the Japanese discs, and not only are the original 1.0 audio and remastered 5.1 audio (and isolated score, if you just want to listen to the part synthesizer, part symphonic music) included, but so is the English dub from the 1996 Viz release; itself a major restoration effort considering that was an Ocean Studios job done using the “Wordfit” system of adjusting frame rates to match sync! (Roger Corman’s dub couldn’t be included, since unlike his treatment these Blu-rays are uncut.)
Other upgrades from past releases include retranslated subtitles that align to the current Leiji Matsumoto manga releases from Seven Seas (separate tracks for the 1.0 and 5.1 tracks, as the scripts aren’t QUITE the same) as well as newly added translations for background signs. Plus, each film includes a seven-page essay from Leiji Matsumoto super-fan/historian Tim Eldred of Cosmo DNA (ourstarblazers.com).
Make no mistake, there’s nothing “modern” about Galaxy Express 999, be it visuals, soundtrack, narrative pacing, or approach to characterization. But these are true classics, as great now as when I first saw them, and these releases exhibit the combined strength of multiple otaku lifetimes. So welcome back, Maetel. Welcome back, Galaxy Express 999. Welcome back, days of youth. Recommended.
Studio/company: Discotek Media
Rating: Not Rated