Galaxy Express 999
Can you call yourself an anime fan if you don't know about Leiji Matsumoto? Although a new generation of fans is completely unaware of the man's impact, his characters within the Harlock universe are a cornerstone of anime storytelling. Despite my love for Matsumoto's work, I had put off watching Galaxy Express 999 for a long time for a few reasons. For one, I thought it was probably dated because of its age (as it was released in 1979). Second, though I knew that there were some interconnections between the Harlock characters and the film, I didn't think they were anything more than cameo appearances. Third, I disliked a good chunk of Maetel Legend, a relatively recent show centered on one of the movie's main characters. All of those reasons sounded great, but now that I've seen Galaxy Express 999, I feel like a real idiot for waiting so long to screen it. It has some flaws characteristic of its creation date, but otherwise it's earned its reputation as a near-classic.
Tetsuro is a young man living on the downtrodden streets of Earth, dreaming of glory like the rogue pirate Captain Harlock and his crew. An orphan at the hands of the maniacal Count Mecha, who hunts down humans for sport, Tetsuro longs to avenge his mother's death. However, Count Mecha is a machine, a once-human who traded in his body to get his shot at metallic immortality. Tetsuro wants desperately to board Three-Nine, a special train that takes its passengers to various stops throughout the stars, so he can travel to Andromeda and receive a free mechanized body. He believes that once that's done, nothing can stop him from taking down his mother's murderer.
Tetsuro tries to steal a ticket, but loses it in the ensuing chaos. However, he bumps into Maetel, a beautiful waif with extremely long blond hair who somehow reminds Tetsuro of his mother. They quickly hit it off, and Maetel agrees to pay Tetsuro's way on Three-Nine in exchange for "protection". As the train stops along the path to Tetsuro's destination and he sees more of the universe, Tetsuro realizes that immortality in a cold hard shell is not as fabulous as one might think. Although Tetsuro is focused on revenge, the journey itself begins to make him into a man.
For its time, Galaxy Express 999 is a fine looking picture. Although there are certain issues with character animation (namely, some faces that don't always look quite right), some of the lighting effects are amazing for a movie now 25 years old. The space battles look great, and they are frankly far superior to how similar sequences looked in the Gundam films that were 999's contemporaries. Some of it does look quite dated now, but an appreciative fan can overlook the issues to see just how important this movie was in its time. For example, there's a sequence in the final reel of the movie with circles of light that Katsuhiro Otomo almost certainly aped in the ending of Akira. You'll know it when you see it...and there are more references that the informed viewer will spot. And for those of you who won't watch anything made before 1990, well, shame on you.
Rin Taro directed the film, and long time readers will know that I have a love/hate relationship with the man. When he's on, he creates stunning films like Metropolis. When he's off his game, he makes garbage like the movie X. With GE999, we see how Rin Taro became a legendary director. To be certain, this still isn't a fast-paced movie, but it doesn't have the editing issues many of his works do. GE999 keeps on target virtually the whole time, and even bits that seem to be side stories tie into the whole nicely by the end.
For Harlock fans, this should be a must-see film. Although characters from that universe only play secondary roles, some pivotal events in the Harlock timeline appear here. Now not everything plays out just like one would expect; the good Captain is nearly jovial in this film, a far cry from his typical stoic melancholy. But considering how many different permutations Matsumoto has taken these characters through, it's nice to return to one of the central sources of the mythology. The good news for those who don't know the Harlock universe is that this is about as good an intro to them as anything. They are in the periphery, and so they make the story more interesting without ever usurping Tetsuro's lead.
Now there are some weak spots that reduce my grade a bit. For one, there are two full songs in the film, and that's two too many. One is pretty bad and one is pretty good, but both serve to stop the movie in its tracks. The soundtrack also has issues. Now I appreciate old-school anime movie music, being a huge fan of the Macross themes. However, not only are the tunes here very 70s-influenced, they tend not to follow the action on screen very well. During the climactic scene, we have music that's almost relaxing rather than tense. These bad choices, however, don't hurt the film on the whole. Finally, there are a few plausibility holes as a couple of characters pop up at opportune times to help Tetsuro out. They don't make you groan, but a better film would have used stronger logic in its scripting.
That being said, Galaxy Express 999 is a fine film for another reason that I really must mention, and that is that it actually has a point. Throughout Tetsuro's long journey, we realize the value of the human spirit. There is a conscious effort to show why immortality in and of itself isn't a good thing if it means the extension of life without the connection of soul. Many debates are at play within this conversation, but it's rare to find an anime willing to talk about deeper issues. I'm no advocate for every anime tackling metaphysical realities, but the discussion raises the caliber of the work up a notch.
Bottom line: even though it has minor issues, see Galaxy Express 999. You may have to track down somebody's ancient video copy, but it's worth the effort.
Galaxy Express 999 -- violence -- A-