Growing up Leiji Matsumoto had an up-close relationship with poverty.
His father was a former Japanese aviator who gave up piloting after the end of World War II. While his father could have gotten a job working as a pilot following the war, he did not want to.
Helen McCarthy mentions this in her biography of Leiji Matsumoto. Along with his love and admiration for his father, she writes:
“By the time hostilities ended with Japan’s surrender in August 1945, the Matsumoto family’s formerly comfortable circumstances had changed dramatically. They were wiling in disused army barracks, in a country where food shortages were so severe that malnutrition was endemic and starvation never far off.”Leiji Matsumoto: Essays on the Manga and Anime Legend
Poverty is sewn throughout the 10 episodes of Galaxy Express 999 that I’ve watched so far. Starting from the first moments that we see Tetsuro and his mother huddled against the snow as they make their way to Megalopolis. We see it in the faces of the poor that live in the slums of the glittering city, hoping that they can earn enough money to board the space train.
We see it again when the mother and daughter try to take Maetel’s and Tetsuro’s place on the train at Comet Station. When they are forced off of the train, they stand by the window begging to be let back on.
Just like poverty was a fact for Matsumoto growing up, it is a fact in the world of Galaxy Express 999.
In these first 10 episodes, poverty is the most closely examined in the two episodes that make up Trader Junction.
Food zombies, wildflower planets and a fake marriage
So to talk about poverty in these episodes I have to talk a little bit about the plot and setting in them. So Maetel and Tetsuro arrive at the Trader Planet, which is a megalopolis-sized city that also serves as a junction for the Galaxy Railways.
Excited about being in a city, the pair go to a restaurant to have something to eat. As they are having food, they look up and see dozens of people pressed up against the glass watching them eat. Maetel explains that these are people who have spent all of their money on tickets, and don’t have any for food.
Tetsuro finds that he is not hungry anymore.
But after getting to the hotel and taking a bath, Tetsuro finds he still has an appetite. He goes back out and tries to find someplace to eat. The problem is that he continues to be hounded by the food zombies.
(Yes. I’m calling them food zombies. Because that is what they reminded me of.)
He finally manages to find a ramen shop tucked away in a seemingly industrial section of the city. Tetsuro can get some food, but as he’s eating, he comes across Hanako, a former employee who is begging for scraps from the owner.
Tetsuro can’t help himself and decides to buy a meal for Hanko. His generosity soon costs him because the food zombies notice, and he is pressured into spending all of his money to buy people food. When it runs out, the crowd turns on him.
He is chased down until Hanako grabs him and leads him to where she lives. She literally in a cave she has dug out behind a crack in a drainage pipe. It’s the kind of abject poverty that you would think only exists in crumbling infrastructure and no social safety nets.
At the end of this, Hanako takes Tetsuro on a train to her home planet — Wildflower.
On a side note, I love the design of Wildflower. It is the first time that we’ve seen what I think of when I think of a Matsumoto world. It doesn’t make sense in a physics sense, but as a mythical place in deep space, it makes perfect sense.
There Hanako pressures Tetsuro to play the part of her groom, so her parents can feel happy for her. She is giving them the simple gift of hope.
Puritans, Marx and common poverty tropes
In general, poverty in most fiction can be divided into two basic archetypes — the ones that blame the poor and the ones that blame society.
So the ones that blame the poor for their plight are built around this Puritanical idea that hard work is somehow morally good. I normally point to my favorite late 19th Century author for perpetrating this crime on us — Horatio Alger.
Alger wrote a series of young adult novels about plucky young people who through hard work and clean living manage to rise from meager beginnings to become captains of industry. The converse of this is also true in these fictional universes. When someone is morally unfit they will either stay poor or become poor.
So while I hang the other trope on Marxists, we can just as easily see it in Charles Dickens. In his world, the poor are poor because the world has conspired to keep them poor. The only way someone ascends through the ranks is through someone acting as their benefactor or simply good luck.
In these stories, society is made to benefit the people in power, and the people without power don’t have any say in their situation unless they’re willing to act with the same maliciousness at the other people in power.
I bring up these two tropes because Matsumoto doesn’t indulge in them in his story. The people at Trader Junction are poor, but they’re poor because the system keeps them poor. Hanako worked herself had enough that she spent her youth just trying to get enough money to survive. She is a nice, kind and hard-working person, but she doesn’t benefit from those qualities, except getting a better class of scraps.
On the other than, the roving packs of food zombies are nearly mindless. They are entitled and greedy. When they drain Tetsuro of all of his cash, they hunt him in the streets to get more.
No. I think to talk about the poor in this story, we need to talk about Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Maslow, poverty and hunger
Abraham Maslow came up with a pyramid of needs in a 1943 paper “A Theory of Human Motivation.” It’s useful to think about it as a ladder of the importance of what people need to become happy.
It starts with people needing basic physiological and safety needs. People need to have a full stomach before they can start thinking about their future. They need a roof over their heads before they start worrying about having a sense of accomplishment in their life.
When people are truly poor, their life starts to shrink around meeting a handful of needs.
In a capitalist society, those needs are nearly always basically met by money.
The food zombies are not concerned with morality. They aren’t concerned with whether they’re taking advantage of Tetsuro. They’re only concerned with finding food.
And they aren’t in this situation because of some moral failing. They’re in this situation because they can’t afford to buy food and buy a ticket to ride the space train to earn that money.
Then on the planet of wildflowers, we see a beautiful planet, but one that the poor can’t enjoy because they’re too busy working. But if they just accepted their lot in life, we could assume that they could be happy. Hanako’s parents aren’t wanting food or shelter or love.
They are wanting for neighbors though.
As always, thanks for reading.