I have a strange love for Leiji Matsumoto.
What makes this strange is I’m not from the right generation to have watched Star Blazers as a teenager. Sure. I have vague memories of a concerned hero peering up at the bust of Admiral Okita and wondering if he can ever live up to his memory.
And to be fair, I’m not even sure if that was really a scene from the show or some sort of vague fever dream caused by me trying to fill in memories from when I was 6 or 7.
But these images, combined with episodes from Force Five and maybe the occasional Robotech episode, became the foundation for my love of anime.
I have Matsumoto’s character designs etched into my memory. His willowy women, his round-eyed heroes with hair covering an eye and his potato people. It’s a design that is uniquely tied to a time and place in my mind.
Even decades later, it was those character designs that stayed with me.
And those designs are indelibly linked to Matsumoto for me. To the point that when I see Harlock or Galaxy Express 999, it’s immediately recognizable.
While those designs were burned into my memory, I only was able to put a name to those faces when I came across the uniquely spelled Captain Herlock. It was an unfortunate release by Pioneer, but I remember watching the interviews with Matsumoto and being fascinated by his fluid mythology.
I also was drawn in by a world that was more archetype than it was reality. I was reminded of stories from Edgar Allen Poe or Michael Moorcock when fiction seemed more prone to wild flights of fancy and less bound to rules and tropes.
But still, it wasn’t for another few years when I finally came across Galaxy Express 999.
When people talk about Matsumoto, it’s generally because of his involvement with Space Battleship Yamato, a show that he was partially involved with, or his even more emblematic Captain Harlock.
But when I sought out a Matsumoto show to watch, I was fascinated by the poster for Galaxy Express 999. The blonde Maetel and the potato-faced Tetsuro seemed such a departure from the classically handsome Harlock who led his pirate crew. This was still in the days before streaming was a thing, so I had to find a torrent and I started downloading it.
What I got when I started watching it was a show that was so totally unlike anything I’ve seen in anime, either before or since. I can’t imagine a show that starts with a young mother being shot by human-hunting cyborgs, leaving behind her young child.
Then that young child, Tetsuro, goes back with a rifle and kills those same cyborgs.
The brutality of it feels completely within the rules of this world, but it’s not dark because of it.
That is what I find that I love the most about the story of Maetel and Tetsuro. The rules of their world are internally consistent and make a certain amount of sense, but they have no interest in normal physics. Tetsuro will hang his head out of the window of the space train, while a wind ruffles his hair. The train is launched into the air on invisible tracks that wend their way through the sky.
When we first encounter the 999, Testuro remarks, “Oh, it’s a steam train.” Like the idea of taking a steam train into the heavens is no more foreign than powering your car with gasoline.
Matsumoto draws from westerns, space operas, war movies, and more to paint a world that is at once magical and beautiful but is at the same time dark and unforgiving. It’s a world where I don’t have any problem imagining a child capable of mowing down a room full of cyborgs and can just as easily accept that there is a tunnel in space.
Galaxy Express 999 is a show where the unreal seems plausible.
Unfortunately, it’s a show that I’ve never finished.
In reading a review of a new book of essays about Matsumoto, I was reminded that many people know about his works, but few people finish anything he has made. Which got me thinking about trying to finish Galaxy Express 999.
One way to make sure that I don’t slide off is to tie it to my writing. Now, do I know that I will make it through this show without giving up again?
No, I don’t. I mean I’m putting Haruhi on pause so I can work on this. And I may just put this on pause to switch to something else.
But just like Tetsuro and Maetel, I’m prepared to take the space train to the end.
And I think with the year we’ve just had, a little magic would be nice.
So make sure you have your pass handy, and let’s all get on board the 999, as let’s have some fun as we head to the planet where they give away mechanical bodies for free.