No one really gets to live happily ever after in Galaxy Express 999.
OK. That might not be entirely true. There are a handful of stories about people chasing their dreams that end happily — Chromeria the revolutionary, Fraiya the artist, Sakezan, the booze-swilling Tarzan ripoff. But these are the exceptions.
What is strange is that the show doesn’t portray itself as particularly bleak. The universe on the screen is colorful and lively and filled with whimsy. But the stories told are often marked with sadness, death and tragedy.
Even more than that, there is an element of the absurd to Matsumoto’s universe. Tragedy can strike anyone for any reason. It’s hard to apply any sort of universal maxim to the show’s moral code.
Its strongest held belief seems to be that you should pursue your dreams without the help of anyone else, but this isn’t always true. In fact, people are often punished for chasing their dreams.
One time, I saw someone write that Galaxy Express 999 is about fighting off fascist oppressors. While there are episodes where that happens, there are just as many episodes where fascist oppressors get to live happily ever after.
In fact, Galaxy Express 999 could be used in a course about subjective ethics and cultural relativism.
What is sure is that in many cases, the just are punished, the wicked survive and the universe keeps spinning on.
So, where does love fit into the bigger picture of Galaxy Express 999?
In particular, I’m looking at romantic love. And even though there was a moment with Maetel and Captain Esmereldas, we usually only see relationships between men and women.
(Though I would like to note the show does talk a lot about parents loving their children. If this show has any inviolate rules left, it’s that parents are always good, even when they do bad things. They always love their children. And mostly, they’re dying.)
Like I said, Galaxy Express 999 is a pretty grim show.
There are two stories I really want to talk about as far as love goes, and they give two similar but very different pictures. The first is Femail’s Memories (episode 42), and the second is Space Ride of the Valkyries (Episodes 44 and 45.)
So I don’t have a better way to talk about what I want to talk about without providing a synopsis. I like these episodes. You should watch them.
So here we go.
The Conductor’s long lost love and the musician
Femail’s Memories gives up a chance to see a time before the Conductor boarded the 999. He was in love with a beautiful woman named Marvelous. They promised that they would each leave to seek their fortune.
The Conductor promised to board the space train and save money, while Marvelous would go to college for cybernetics. This is some indeterminate amount of time ago.
Look, I’m going to skip right past the ruse the show uses and say that Marvelous, wearing a disguise, is aboard the 999 as they approach the Visage of Memories. The planet is hers and the Conductor’s home planet. I’ll also be frank that the time learning about cybernetics has not made Marvelous a better person. She, herself, said she went through school on a faraway planet and went through unspeakably cruel days.
Now she finds the Conductor on the train, after he hadn’t saved any money, and is angry.
There is some plot that happens in this episode, but I don’t want to bog you down with meaningless details.
I think it is important here that the Conductor says that he is chasing his dream of working for the Galaxy Railways, while Marvelous says that it’s foolish to pursue your dreams. And unless he is rich, she doesn’t want him.
In the end, the Conductor lets her go and says, “I’ll always love the person she was back then. No matter what anyone says. Until the day I die, she will be there with the memories of my youth. She is no longer Marvelous. I’m sure of it.”
The second two-part episode is going to take a bit more time to get through. In this one, we are introduced to a singer/songwriter named Prider on a planet called Deadwood Mountain. The entire world is covered in dead trees that reached a certain point and withered away.
Now Prider doesn’t want to be like one of those trees. He wants to get on the space train and travel the stars. The only problem, at least for Tetsuro, is that Prider has a girlfriend named Alice. Alice loves Prider and wants him to be happy, so she works two jobs and saves money to buy him a ticket on the space train.
But only him.
Tetsuro finds out that Prider is just going to take this money and leave this woman behind, gets really angry, and tries to stop him. Even after getting on the 999, they fight.
Until Tetsuro realizes that Prider is just doing the same thing that he is doing. They are both pursuing their dreams. Tetsuro realizes that if they don’t chase their dreams that will “wither away like little bugs.” Prider is just willing to step on people to follow his dreams.
Prider’s journey to seek fame and fortune would be short-lived because the 999 would soon be hijacked by the Valkyrie, a witch dedicated to destroying all of the organic life. Because he sings his lovely song for the Valkyrie’s three knights, he is taken along with the Conductor, Maetel and Tetsuro to the Valkyrie’s spaceship.
To shorten this down, the Valkyrie gives the three of them a day to live. During that time, Prider curses himself for deceiving Alice and leaving her behind.
When they’re going to be executed, a fight breaks out. Just as Tetsuro is going to be stabbed, Prider steps in front and takes one for the team. After a very long death scene where we get one more rendition of Prider’s song, he dies.
Because that is the way Galaxy Express 999 is.
Two visions of love
These episodes touch on a similar conflict between two core values in the show — the pursuit of your dreams and love. And they each come to drastically different conclusions.
When Femail returns to meet the Conductor, she is no longer the idealistic woman. Now she really only cared about material success. Had the Conductor saved money? Was he wealthy? Basically, in chasing her goals, she lost the childlike wonder in the universe.
I skipped over one part because Femail hijacks the train and provokes the Conductor to finally punch her. I didn’t find in my notes what her goal was with this, but it eventually ends up being for naught.
In the end, it’s fair to say that love loses to pursuing your dreams in this episode. Marvelous sacrificed so much to pursue her dream that all she could think about was becoming rich enough to eat consistently. In a lot of ways, she lost her love but gained her dream.
The Conductor likewise put all of his work into pursuing his dream. It obviously wasn’t as grueling, but it also cost him his love.
Now I do think this episode can also be seen as discussing how time changes you, but memories become, in the narrator’s words, “our own personal galaxy.” But even in that, I feel that this episode really gives a pass to the pursuit of your dreams.
Why do I say that? Well, remember how I said that things don’t end happily in Galaxy Express 999 most of the time. In this episode, they don’t particularly end up miserable. The two characters separate at the train platform and go about their lives.
Their pursuit cost them, but it didn’t kill them.
On the other hand, poor, poor Prider. Now, I don’t know if Prider ever really did love Alice, and I’m sure that you could argue that he didn’t. In most of the interactions that we see with them, Prider is mean to Alice.
We see him get excited about the 999 coming in just as she is inviting him over to her place for his birthday. On the other hand, Alice is working two jobs just to support him while he wanders around the planet singing his song. (It’s a lovely song, but I’m not sure how he ever expected to make it with just one song.)
If Prider loved Alice, he loved his dream more. But like we saw in Femail’s Memories, that isn’t always a death sentence in 999-land.
But for Prider, it was a death sentence. Why is that? The show does give us one easy answer to that in Prider’s jail cell confession. He says he should have never left her behind or deceived her. So he dies as a form of redeeming himself for the sin of abandoning his love.
If he’s dying for the sake of betraying his love for the sake of his dreams, it still makes love the higher value.
Or we can see this exchange a different way. We could say that Prider is exchanging his dreams to save Tetsuro’s dreams. And this might be the correct way of looking at Prider’s sacrifice because he tells Tetsuro that he’s the first person that he’s met who is really human.
This implies that Prider sees a similar fire to pursue a dream, which is essential to save. The problem here is that it also means that Prider’s goal is somehow less important. This drops us right back into the same conundrum.
Prider is broken. Why is he broken? Because he betrayed Alice’s love so he could chase his dream.
What can we take away from this?
Whenever I’m faced with an episodic show, I like to find the “rules” of the world. When I look at The Big O, I see a world where people who seek out the past are punished for it (at least in many cases.) When I look at Star Trek, there are themes of not judging people just because they’re from a different culture but holding them to universal moral standards.
The problem with Galaxy Express 999 is that the deeper I get into the show, the more it chips away at these truths. While Maetel does serve as a moral barometer, her decisions of what is or isn’t moral can change from episode to episode. Not in a disturbing way, but in a definite way.
Each story becomes its own singular piece with its own truths. But when you apply it across episodes to find moral through lines, you will find episodes that contradict them.
But it’s far from a tale told by an idiot. While it is occasionally full of sound and fury, it does signify something.
We can realize that this is an absurd universe, and nothing will make sense outside of this singular moment in time. If there is any universal truth to the show, that is it. Live in the moment because the next may be your last.
And, as always, thanks for reading.