Galaxy Express 999 has a strange relationship with self-determination.
I took a week off of writing about Galaxy Express 999, and I’ve hit a pocket of exciting episodes that I really want to write about. So I may have picked possibly the one topic I may be the least well-equipped to talk about.
Well, outside of talking about brain surgery, or rocket science, or a lot of things, really. Who is a mile-wide, an inch deep and has two thumbs? This guy.
Back to Galaxy Express, though. I’m having a hard time trying to decide whether Matsumoto believes people should pursue their dreams or if he thinks people should live within their limits.
Throughout the show, Tetsuro gets asked to give up his quest, and in exchange, someone will give him a mechanical body. For instance, when he meets Ryuz at the bottom of the gravity well, she makes the offer. He gets a similar request from the cowardly emperor who wants to use his body to stay young.
The price for that mechanical body is typically his freedom in some way.
Each time someone does, we get a similar response. He will get his mechanical body on his own terms. He won’t take any shortcuts or make any sacrifices.
The show continuously rewards this type of self-determinism. It consistently says that Tetsuro won’t achieve anything without effort. Nothing is easy, and nothing is a given.
Tetsuro isn’t the only one rewarded this way. We see, or at least hear, about Fraiya’s success after she struggled against discrimination to achieve her dream. We see it again with Chromeria in A Steel Angel where she fights against her planet’s self-destructive nature and then against the rules of the Galaxy Express.
Not only that, but the show punishes those who seek to remove other people’s ability to determine their own fate, such as the Cowardly Emperor, who got blown up with his whole planet.
But there is a group that exists in between, and those at the characters I want to talk about. In particular, I want to focus on Episode 39, which is Kasumi of the Mist Capitol. But we can also see the same issue in Episode 18, Maetel of the Mud.
I’m just focusing on the latter episode, but they’re both pretty good. A brief synopsis will follow, so, like always, I encourage you to go watch Galaxy Express 999. It’s a good show with some really standout episodes.
Alternately, you can check out A Fan’s Guide to Galaxy Express 999 post on this. He does a stellar job cataloging these episodes. I’m am always impressed by them.
The Town of Ghosts
Episode 39 starts a little differently than many of Galaxy Express 999 episodes. We see the 999 moving through foggy space and the headlight going in front of it in a cone. We are told that the fog in space blocks out the light from other stars, and Tetsuro comments how hearing the whistle in the darkness sounds lonely.
When we finally see the planet they will be landing on, it’s half-formed. Two-spheres are circling each other, but they don’t form a single cohesive whole. As the 999 is coming in, we meet Kasumi and Kagero. Right now, they aren’t much more than shadows on the wall, and they are watching the 999 come in.
We are told that this is a populous planet, but there is no one around when the 999 lands on it. Maetel says that the people here don’t work during the day, and they only come out when it’s cloudy because the fog-covered sun is too intense for them.
We start to notice more strangeness as well. When Tetsuro gets to the hotel, he immediately falls through the floor. Then he jumps off the stairs going to his room, and falls through another floor.
After night falls and they are in the hotel, we see the people appear. They are ghostly and beautiful, moving through the fog. Maetel tells us they are considered the most beautiful people in the universe.
As Tetsuro is taking a bath, Kasumi and Kagero strike. They blow out the wall to the hotel and steal Maetel’s suitcase and Tetsuro’s clothes. Tetsuro chases them through the crowded streets, wearing nothing more than his birthday suit.
When they shoot him, he finds the shot isn’t anything more than a pebble hitting them. Eventually, he manages to chase them down and discovers the truth of the world. Just like the planet is half-formed, the people on it are half-formed too. They may be beautiful, but they are incredibly frail.
But no matter how frail they are, they are still pretty clever. They manage to give back Tetsuro and Maetel’s stuff, but they still take the passes.
While Tetsuro and Maetel search for them, Kasumi and Kagero lay low, waiting to sneak onto the 999. They have a vision of living on a planet where they can build a house and live on the land.
On Twitter, I joked that they dreamed about being survivalists, but it’s true. They dreamed about being strong and escaping this planet that they felt confined to.
But we’re told by Maetel and Tetsuro that if they leave the planet, they will die from the shock of the 999 taking off.
Well, Maetel and Tetsuro aren’t able to find them before the train takes off. While they are on the train, the conductor comes back with their passes and says he found them on the train. We soon discover that they have died from the shock of leaving the Fog Capital.
It’s interesting to note that they are lying together, holding each other’s hands and smiling.
So we get a rare glimpse into Maetel’s inner mind here. I’ve made the point before that Maetel is the moral arbiter in the show. While Tetsuro will often act without thinking and make mistakes, Maetel is the character who is always correct in her actions. This is important because she pities the couple and then gives us these lines as they are sent into space.
“No matter if you have the will. No matter if you have the courage. No matter if your hopes and dreams brightly burn in your heart. There are some who will never make it. You’re limited by the planet you’re born into.”
We get the lines somewhat repeated by that narrator, which is ironically a less reliable source of knowing what we are supposed to believe.
“There are rules that apply to living beings in the universe. There are also planets where those rules do not apply at all. The Fog Capital is one of those. Those born there will never be able to leave. Travelers call it a glowing prison.”
Ghost People and Determinism
You may know where I’m going. I’m really trying to figure out which side of this line Matsumoto is coming down on. I’m seeing two threads running through these stories that may not be entirely in conflict but do seem to be contradictory.
On the one hand, this show spends a lot of time saying people should work toward their dreams. Even more so, it says that those dreams don’t need to be confined to their flesh and blood bodies. People can seek out a mechanical body, and while the show is a little ambivalent about whether that is a good thing, it’s definitely not ambivalent in saying that seeking out your goals is a good thing.
The problem here, and in the Maetel of the Mud episode, is that seeking out their dreams leads directly to the characters’ deaths. Their will alone is not enough to transcend the physical limitations of their bodies.
This seems to run contrary to what is said in other episodes, where will and moral virtue at the very least ends in a draw when it comes to physical limitations.
Now I could see the argument that both Maetel of the Mud and Kasumi and Kagero lacked moral virtue. In the former’s case, she kidnapped Tetsuro, and in the latter’s case, they stole the passes to get aboard the 999.
But I’m relatively sure that is not the message in either case. We have seen other instances of people trying to use deceit or force to get aboard the 999. They are not killed. Often, they are just set down on another planet or kicked off the train.
Add to that, Maetel’s final epitaph for these folks. She says that no matter how much they struggle or dream, they will never make it. They are limited by their place at birth.
(On a side note: This could all be a clever metaphor for sexism or classism, but I don’t think so. Or at the very least, that feels like a stretch.)
I do have a third option as well. When I watched this and the Maetel of the Mud episodes, I noticed that they both ended with the characters being happy. In Kasumi’s and Kagero’s case, we see them in each other’s arms, smiling and dreaming about their survivalist future.
In MoM’s case, she is happily talking with Tetsuro when she literally returns to the mud.
What if it isn’t about actually reaching your goal. What if they aren’t meant to survive. What is just the act of trying and dying is enough?
So I don’t think that is what the show is really trying to say, but that is how I want to interpret it.
Because shouldn’t we all be allowed to dream of the stars, even if our feet are planted in the mud.
As always, thanks for reading.