(Note: I apologize ahead of time for any gross oversimplifications of history that are contained in this blog post.)
When I was growing up, I remember seeing news stories about W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods and the legacy of cancer they left in Woburn, Mass.
Just for context, between the 1960s and 1970s, W.R. Grace concealed dumping a solvent on the ground behind its plant. Beatrice Foods bought the Riley Tannery where drums of solvent were buried right next to the Aberjona River.
Between those two sources, that chemical leached into the ground and polluted two of the town’s wells. It led to at least six leukemia deaths and an increased amount of other cancers.
Even years later, it remains a superfund site. They have pumped water out, dug out drums and tried to filter out the chemicals from the soil.
If this seems familiar to you, they made a move about it. It was called A Civil Action and starred John Travolta. As far as I can tell, it does a pretty good job of relaying what it took to hold WR Grace and the other companies involved responsible for the disaster they created.
I bring this up because when we think of environmental crises for the past two decades, they are primarily vague existential threats. What will it mean if all of the polar bears die? What type of problems are we heading to if we don’t curb the emissions of greenhouse gases?
It’s hard for me as an individual to imagine the effect of these will be. I’m not denying that they are real or that they are threats. Only that they don’t feel like a real threat to me.
Not only that, but none of these threats have a single cause. Sure, if we all stop driving cars, there will be a decrease in CO2 emissions. (See what happened with COVID.) But it would take a global shift to make any long-lasting change.
But when I think about the folks in Woburn, Mass., that is something I can imagine having an effect on me. It’s something with a singular actor making a reckless choice that led to the deaths of people and an ecological mess that remains just as bad today.
Dozens of these rose out of the laissez-faire control over corporate emissions during the middle of the 20th century. My favorite of these is the Cuyahoga River catching fire. That’s right. A river caught on fire. The one that saw headlines in 1969 wasn’t even the worst case. In 1952, it caught fire and did $1.3 million in damages.
So you might be asking why am I talking about ecological disasters of the 20th century on my anime blog? Well, it provides a little bit of context for an episode of Galaxy Express 999.
So I really have to credit The History of Japan Podcast for the idea for this post. I’m going to link to their posts about the methylmercury poisoning that happened in the city of Minamata. The “disease” was discovered in 1956 after people started showing up with symptoms that included “ataxia, numbness n the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, loss of peripheral vision, and damage to hearing and speech. In extreme cases, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death follow within weeks of the onset of symptoms. A congenital form of the disease can also affect fetuses in the womb.”
This was caused by Chisso Corporation dumping the chemical straight into the bay, where it collected in the fish. And in an area where fishing was the other big industry, it’s pretty easy to see where this would end up.
I’m going to do a poor job of rehashing this, so I really recommend going and listening to the podcast episodes. But what struck me is how long it took for either the Japanese government or Chisso to really own up to what they were doing.
The Japanese government was so focused on making sure they were competitive with the west that they would gladly write off a few lives to accomplish this.
Deaths in the region continued for 30 years. What happened in Minamata was not isolated. The Minamata disease and the related Niigata Minamata disease are two of Japan’s four major ecological disasters.
I also couldn’t help but notice how close the facts in the Minamata disease case mirrored W.R. Grace’s poisoning of the two Woburn wells. The people in both cases didn’t want to really take action. If the families hadn’t taken W.R. Grace and Beatrice Foods to trial, no one would have one.
Even then, it took the EPA stepping in to really hold the people accountable. We see something remarkably similar in the case of the Minamata disease, where people wouldn’t see any justice until the early 2000s.
It’s really with that backdrop that I want to talk about Episode 32 of Galaxy Express 999, The Bitten Planet of Stopped Space-time.
Sweetsweet the Bitten Planet
With any of these posts, I encourage people to check out the episode that I’m talking about. It’s a good episode, and it’s really only 22 minutes out of your life. You don’t have to watch the entire series to get what is going on.
At the beginning of the episode, we meet a fellow traveler on the 999, Space Warrior Edmond. He is on his way to the 999’s next stop, the Planet Sweetsweet. Edmond has spent the past 50 years journeying the galaxy, but he just wants to return to the beautiful planet he remembers.
I mean, really, this is a planet straight out of a Disney film. Dogs and cats are sleeping together. Bunnies are just sitting by the edge of the lake. If there is a platonic ideal for idyllic, it is the planet Sweetsweet.
The audience is tipped off that not everything will be sweet when we reach the planet Sweetsweet. Because as Edmond is describing the planet, Maetel is keeping her gaze downcast and not talking.
Then the conductor comes in, and we learn that it is no longer the planet Sweetsweet. No, it now has the ominous name of The Bitten Planet. We soon find out why because giant chunks are missing.
When they land, Edmond rushes off to find out what happened to his precious planet, and Maetel and Tetsuro begin to journey around. In an unusual move for the show, we follow both Edmond’s perspective and Maetel’s and Tetsuro’s as we learn that there are giant ships that cart off the sweet dirt that makes up the planet.
The giant bites are because corporations are coming by and scooping out the land and carting it off.
Eventually, Edmond confronts the government officials doing this, and he says, “How dare you! How dare you ruin my homeland…” They respond, “Ruin? Don’t say such foolish things. Do you know how rich we’ve become since we started selling off our land?”
They also tell him to look at all of the gold coins, and he replies, “Do you think gold coins make a planet rich?”
Edmond starts opening fire, and government thugs can tackle him and take him into custody. He’s rescued by Maetel and Tetsuro, and we can tell the Maetel is angry. She starts blasting bags of coins to make them let Edmond go. And she does some super sweet Secret Agent Maetel moves to avoid their blasters.
They all leave on the space train, but Edmond is laughing and crying as they go. We do get one final note that eventually, the people of the Bitten Planet will sell all of their land and not have a planet left.
In the context of its time
It’s easy to read this episode in several ways, but I really want to focus on two of them. First, you can see this as a pretty straightforward parable about not selling away your natural resources for temporary wealth. Basically, I kind of generic Captain Planet mottoism that says the power to save the planet is with you!
The other way to see this is as an to appeal to traditional values rather than pursuing wealth and favor from outside forces. Japan has always had an isolationist bent to its nature, and I think it’s easy to read this episode as playing into that.
But I think the truth of this episode lies somewhere in the middle. We have to remember Galaxy Express 999 came out just as people were beginning to realize just how much stuff had been dumped into the rivers, bays and oceans. They weren’t dealing with the vague existential threat that is global warming or impending overpopulation.
What they were dealing with was real. Companies were poisoning people right before their eyes, and the government kept sweeping it under the rug.
Now at least some of this is with the benefit of hindsight. I can’t say how people 40 years ago really saw these disasters. But at least some people were aware of it. The Japanese government officially recognized that the Chisso plant was responsible for Minamata disease.
While I can’t say how much Matsumoto was aware of it. The concrete reality of government officials and companies colluding in the deaths of thousands gives the line “Do you know how rich we’ve become since we started selling off our land?” a particularly special meaning.
It also lends extra meaning to his reply that “Do you think gold coins make you rich?”
Anyway, that is all I have to say about Galaxy Express 999 for this week. What do you think? Am I reading too much into this? Have I completely messed up the history?
As always, thanks for reading.