Author’s note: I wrote this after watching the first 10 episodes of the show. If there is anything further on that contradicts this, I apologize.
Galaxy Express 999 is filled with seeming tonal contradictions and it’s always bugged me on some level.
In the span of the first episode, the main character’s mother is gunned down by human-hunting robots and Tetsuro, in turn, enacts brutal revenge on her killers.
On the other hand, we see a whimsical image of him sticking his head out of the space train so his wind can be ruffled by the space wind.
The whimsy doesn’t stop there. At one point, the 999 stops at Comet Station, where all of the comets are sent on their course around the solar system.
Yet a few episodes earlier, we see a man and woman, seemingly two of the last on Mars, die ignominiously and alone. They are buried by the blowing sand of Mars as the only other character sits on the porch and ponders.
These are just a few of the times when the show seems to oscillate from quirky to grim, sometimes within minutes of each other.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think it’s a fault in the show. It always feels internally consistent. What should cause a level of tonal whiplash just doesn’t.
That’s what I’ve been struggling with. Why is this show able to have cartoonish antics, but also have moments of real and genuine pathos?
Well, I have a theory, but first, I want to talk through why I probably noticed the issues with tone first.
GE999 relies on a heavy use of what seems to be cartoon logic, at least at first blush. For instance when Tetsuro and Maetel first encounter the 999, Tetsuro points out it is a steam-powered engine.
So this Galaxy spanning train is powered by technology that was obsolete around 70 years before the manga was written. We see coal smoke pour out of the stack, and, during a battle on Episode 4, the Great Bandit Antares is buried in a pile of coal.
Because what else would power the steam locomotive space train. Of course it would be coal.
All of this operates on seemingly the same logic that lets Looney Tunes villains take several steps off of the cliff before plunging downward.
This is combined with an episodic structure where Tetsuro and Maetel seem to return to zero at the beginning of the next story.
And sure there are some things that carry over from episode to episode — Tetsuro’s cosmo-gun, his medallion, Maetel’s seemingly mysterious motives — but these are the exception rather than the rule.
These are the elements that are the most striking when I compare them with the massive carnage that happens in this show. I mean a whole train load of people are killed, seemingly because they won’t be friends with the witch that lives at the bottom of the gravity well.
What if they weren’t. There is a type of storytelling where the impossible stands side-by-side with the real. Where heroes can be sneaking into cities inside giant wooden horses, and where ships loads of sailors can just drift off to sleep in a field of lotuses.
Yes, I am talking about the realm of myth.
Galaxy Express 999 as The Odyssey
When I first started to turn this idea over in my head, I thought about comparing the voyage of the space train to the voyage of the Argo. The problem is that I don’t think Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece matches as well as Odysseus 10-year journey home from Troy.
Really, they start in similar ways. On a really basic level, they each start with a one-eyed creature taking away something meaningful from the main character. The revenge on that creature, then starts them off on a quest.
There are other structural similarities. Odysseus and Tetsuro both spend their time hopping from place to place. They both encounter a wide range of strange and mysterious people and creatures.
What is probably more important is that a lot of the things that Odysseus encounters are simply ludicrous when looked at without the filter of having grown up hearing these stories. Let’s take the land of the Lotus Eaters, who use their magical lotus plants to drug many of Odysseus’ men.
These plants, according to my research, don’t have that effect. But why else would an island of mysterious people spend their time sleeping. Well, it was the drugged plants.
The same goes for the sirens or Scylla and Charybdis. All of these smack of primordial things that people are afraid of rather than anything “real.”
In many ways, I think Matsumoto’s story uses similar symbols to create a mythos around the space train. The train isn’t just any old train. It’s a steam train. Something that is shared by American and Japanese cultural identities. He draws off imagery of the U.S. West when he turns Tetsuro into a gun slinger.
The show borrows from images of western films, and images of snow castles or perfect European towns. Everything is carefully sculpted to present worlds that have more to do with creating a situation for our protagonists than they actually make sense.
For instance, the train stops at Pluto, which is a frozen planet. As they are approaching it in the 999, Tetsuro gets colder. He is told that “The frozen souls of travelers past cause it to happen.”
And this imagery of people being stuck on this frozen planet and tied to their past will persist as Tetsuro meets the ice graveyard keeper. A robotic woman who has traded her flesh and blood body for a mechanical one without a face. She’s done this because she couldn’t bear to let her human body grow old, but she can’t find a face that she wants for her robot body.
Whether intentional or not, Matsumoto has tapped into a sort of primal myth-making archetype here. I’m sure he would say that it was intentional, since so many of his stories around built around things that “feel” right rather than make physical sense.
Even more importantly, the show plays this straight. It doesn’t draw any attention to the silliness of the space train or its coal compartment.
This is why the tonal shifts aren’t really jarring. On some level, we’re used to these kinds of stories. We accept that horses can have wings, monsters can lure sailors to the rocks, and there are one-eyed giants. Even with the fundamental silliness of all of those ideas.
Travelers with a sense of justice
There is one other thing I think I should touch on. While I do think GE999 is built similarly to the Odyssey, I think Tetsuro and Maetel are better people than Odysseus.
Many times throughout the show, they are imbued with an almost mystical ability to enact forgiveness. On Pluto, as Tetsuro is about to destroy the graveyard keeper’s body, Maetel stops him.
We see this again with Ryuz, the witch at the bottom of the gravity well. As Tetsuro learns her story, he absolves her of her guilt, and she lets him and the 999 leave.
While hubris is generally a big part of the Greek and Roman myths, it’s not here. I know that this is mostly an afterward to my larger point, but I do think it needs to be brought up here.
As always, thanks for reading.