Sometimes a show hits me with a conundrum that I don’t have an answer to.
Typically, this comes when I’m hit with a concept or an execution that is way smarter than I am. I can see that the creator intended for a theme or a message to come through, but I’m just not capable of really understanding it.
Take Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. A 1990s black-and-white film about a man’s attempt to understand the secret math behind divine understanding. What is Pi about? I’m not really sure. Is this just some sort of film about the Heisenberg principle and that the closer you come to understanding the divine, the less sense it makes? Maybe.
That’s what I mean about a story that is smarter than I am. I’m sure that the creator hand-picked a series of scenes in an attempt to pass on some sort of message about modern society. But I just can’t piece together what he’s driving at.
But that’s not what I’m talking about here. As much as Galaxy Express 999 is a show with nuance, it’s not a show with a lot of subtlety.
If all science fiction should have a moral, then the show’s writers and likely Matsumoto himself are crystal clear what that morals are.
No, in the case of Episode 26, The Skeleton’s Song, I have a different conundrum. I am conflicted. The creators spell out who they believe is right and who they believe is wrong. The punishment that is meted out is brutal and final.
But I feel like the intended message of the episode flies in the face of my own interpretation of it.
And I’m conflicted because I’m not sure if I’m interpreting the episode wrong, or misinterpreting the moral or if this is just a case where the intended message is different from the actual message.
I’m going to provide a synopsis of the story of Horohoro, but I really recommend going and checking out the episode. You don’t really need to have watched the series; each of these episodes stands independently.
Go do it. It will likely end up on my list of favorite episodes.
OK. I assume you’re back. If you didn’t leave, let me get to talking about the episode.
The Planet that sings the songs of yesteryear
So I really need to start at the beginning of the episode because it’s unusual for this point in the series. At this point, we’ve settled into a reasonably comfortable rhythm. The episode will normally start with either a passing train or an introduction to the planet.
Tetsuro will make some sort of comment about how weird it is, and Maetel will give the Tetsuro (and, by extension, the audience) some sort of exposition that explains the planet.
This episode starts with flute music, images of the 999 and then the conductor comes in and says the next stop will be the Planet that Sings the Songs of Yesteryear.
What we don’t get is any commentary from Tetsuro. We don’t get any explanation from Maetel. We get more sad flute music, sounds of the wind and pictures of the train passing across a desolate landscape. In fact, the first dialogue we get from either Maetel or Tetsuro comes after they’ve already landed and are at the hotel.
They are warned by the desk clerk to not talk to any solicitors. I mean this might as well be a gun hung over the mantel, right?
As soon as they get into the hotel room, Maetel steps away to shower, and Tetsuro goes to the window. And in true Tetsuro fashion, he immediately forgets the warning he got from the clerk at the desk and starts talking to a mysterious man selling eggs outside of the window.
Tetsuro is far more excited about eggs than I have ever been in my entire life and invites the mysterious man up.
Skipping ahead a bit, we learn that this mysterious man is named Horohoro, and he used to have a woman he was in love with. But ever since she left, he has been losing pieces of himself.
Now all that is left of him is a skeleton. But still, he yearns for a return to those glory days, and he’s trying to sell eggs to get his girlfriend back. He is longing for a time when he was poor but happy.
We soon meet the woman he is pining for. She is staying in the same hotel as Tetsuro and Maetel with her new boyfriend. The four of them encounter each other in the hotel restaurant after hearing Horohoro hawking his eggs in the dark.
Both of them are jerks. The woman tosses a bowl at the window because the waiter doesn’t move fast enough to close in, and the guy threatens to kill Tetsuro. The show doesn’t waste any time explaining just how venal and despicable these two are. She basically spells out that she left the planet because she was poor and couldn’t have fun.
Here is the entire exchange. I think it’s important because it explains that she really is a jerk.
Maetel hits the nail on the head when she says that they don’t understand the feelings that others go through.
Tetsuro goes to find Horohoro and tells him about seeing his girlfriend. Horohoro knows about it as well and about her new boyfriend. We learn that Horohoro can’t forget the woman, and in a fit of rage, he knocks out Tetsuro, takes his cloak and gun and goes and murders both his ex and her new boyfriend.
The police blame Tetsuro, and Tetsuro is given a choice. On the one hand, he can let Horohoro face the punishment for the crime or take the blame and never return to the planet.
Tetsuro decides to take the blame and let Horohoro live the remainder of his life as a walking skeleton.
That’s it. We’re played out with the same flute music that we started with, and the narrator talks about that some people can still hear the song of sadness from the planet.
The tragedy of Horohoro and his girlfriend
As far as I can tell, neither Horohoro nor his girlfriend is a particularly good person — either in a usual moral sense or in the rules the show has laid out for what makes a “good” person.
This is obvious with the girlfriend. She left Horohoro on this planet by himself, and instead of letting him off the hook or even feeling sorry for him, she is actively antagonistic toward him. She returns to the planet frequently enough that Horohoro has seen her there before, but she complains about being there.
Maetel is right. She is a woman without empathy.
Horohoro represents a more complex problem. You see, he’s not a particularly nice person either. Instead of letting go of the relationship he had with this woman and moving on, he doubles down. He hangs around the hotel and tries to hawk his eggs, even late into the night. We know that he’s spent enough time around the hotel to have seen her and a series of new boyfriends.
Even in the more sexist 70s, I think this steps past the line of pining and firmly into the territory of obsessing.
Even if this would be more acceptable during the show’s time frame, I’ve already laid out how this show considers people who cling too hard onto one belief.
In the end, this is a tragedy in the classical sense. Both characters have a fatal flaw. The girlfriend is self-centered, and Horohoro is obsessed with the past.
That fatal flaw leads to their downfall. In the case of the girlfriend, she dies because she doesn’t care about Horohoro’s feelings. And Horohoro lost all of his flesh and most of his bones because he couldn’t let go.
For the most part, the show sells this tragedy. Between the sad flute music, the wind sounding like the planet crying and the monologue at the end, we are shown how these two people destroyed each other.
Except for one thing, Tetsuro’s choice.
The moral question of Tetsuro’s choice
What makes this episode hard to parse is that Tetsuro agrees to take the blame for the two murders committed by Horohoro. This kind of sacrifice is easy to see coming from Tetsuro, so I don’t have a problem from a character level.
But I do have a problem from a thematic level.
This show is remarkably consistent in how it treats Maetel. She is the moral arbiter for this show. You can’t always trust Tetsuro to do the “right” thing, but you can always trust Maetel.
So when she consents to his decision, Maetel is giving him and, by extension, the audience the signal that what Horohoro did was OK.
To me, the moral choice would be to punish Horohoro. For better or worse, this is a situation of his own creation. He even says that he can not let go even though he knows that he should.
While I say this, there is a possible reason the episode stops before punishing Horohoro. It is possible that the creators felt he had suffered enough already. That his punishment was to live the rest of his life as a skeleton and most likely alone. His girlfriend had all but killed him, after all.
This is a reasonable interpretation, but I wish the writers had taken it one step further and not just let him off with a pass.
I hope more people will watch the episode and offer their opinions.
And, as always, thanks for reading.