Nothing captures the imagination quite like a steam train. There is, of course, the romantic image of the golden age of travel, from the waning days of the Victorian Era clear through the 1930's when steam was king on land and sea, where opulent passenger cars ferried their vacationers through picturesque mountains. There is also a wonderful organic quality to steam trains: the "chuff-chuff" of the engine as it releases the vapour of boiled water, the clanking of the heavy iron, the creaking of the wooden cars. If there is anywhere you must go, there are few better ways to go than via steam train... even when you're going to outer space!
The railway arrived in Japan in 1872 and in the 1920's, it inspired grieving author Kenji Miyazawa, who in turn inspired manga artist Leiji Matsumoto. Matsumoto's manga magnum opus - Galaxy Express 999 - was so well received by readers that it was translated into an anime television series that ran for 113 episodes between 1978 and 1981.
Galaxy Express is, for the most part, a pure futuristic Science Fiction story about a galactic society that has been severely segregated by those wealthy enough to afford cyborg bodies and those huddled masses too poor to obtain one. In this transhumanist society, the poor natural human beings are treated worse, even, than cattle. The cyborgs enjoy all the best that their immortal lives have to offer, including hunting vagrant humans for sport.
The story focuses on a young impoverished boy named Tetsuro who is journeying to Earth's main Galaxy Express station with his mother, in the hopes of being able to scrounge up enough money to afford a ticket to the planet Andromeda. Rumour has it that this last stop on the rails gives away android bodies for free. En route, Tetsuro's mother is killed by the huntsman Count Mecha and Tetsuro himself is left for dead. However, he is recovered from the freezing snow by the mysterious and beautiful Maetel, who offers Tetsuro a pass aboard the Galaxy Express in exchange for being her companion on the journey. Tetsuro accepts, but not before swinging by Count Mecha's castle to firebomb the place and mercilessly gun down the occupants... Including smashing the brain chamber of the pleading Count with the butt of his rifle. Escaping the police - for killing cyborgs is a crime - the duo make it to their train.
Amidst this Sci-Fi environment, the titular twist is that space ships can take on any form, and for intergalactic commuters, the most comfortable form is that of a train. The nature of the Galaxy Express 999's route is such that, for the maximum comforts of the occupants, it has been built inside and out to resemble a steam train.
Aboard this magnificent spacefaring, whistle-blowing railway, Maetel takes Tetsuro on a coming-of-age adventure spanning hundreds of worlds. And like Galaxy Express 999's inspiration, each stop along the route offers the boy a strong - and usually agonizingly melancholy - lesson. Some of these are moral lessons, like when they visit the world where everything looks blissfully pleasant yet absolutely nothing is prohibited... Murders happen right in the street and no one does anything. Following the kidnap and rescue of Maetel, Tetsuro learns that total Libertarianism isn't all it's cracked up to be. Occasionally these lessons come by crossovers with other Matsumoto charachters, like Captain Harlock, Queen Esmeraldas and the Space Battleship Yamato.
But for the most part, Tetsuro is slowly and steadily confronted with the question of whether or not he should be so eager to give up his humanity for the sake of a cyborg body. In fact, they don't even make it one stop before meeting a group of cyborgs trapped in an immortal, desolate subsistence on the desert planet of Mars. Going further to Pluto, they see the icy graveyard where discarded human bodies are laid to rest and meet the faceless cyborg guardian who laments that her machine body will never be as beautiful as the human one to which she can never return. Along the way they also meet a girl who received a new body for the sake of her baronial lover who then discarded her after all the other polite women of society followed suit, making her no longer the unique showpiece he wanted her to be.
After a long hiatus in availability, Galaxy Express 999 is currently viewable online via the anime distributor/social networking site Crunchyroll. Short of a complete series DVD release, this is one's most likely opportunity to see it. Besides the series, there were also two movie versions made: Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999. Like many television-to-film transitions, these films sacrifice much of what made the series so wonderful by being a very minimal retread of the series' highlights.
More recently, the Galaxy Express franchise has been enjoying a resurgence in high "space opera" form. Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy is an hour-long pilot for a sequel to the original series, featuring much cleaner animation and a new story about Maetel and Tetsuro's second voyage on the railway to stop a new threat that has risen in the wake of the machine empire's downfall. Two comparable prequels have also been produced - Maetel Legend and Space Symphony Maetel - that, in contradiction to each other (Leiji Matsumoto is renowned for dismissing concerns for continuity), expand on the beginnings of the machine empire and bridge the gap between the Matsumoto series Queen Millenia and Galaxy Express. The series Galaxy Railways looks at a different corner of the universe, as young Manabu dreams of joining the Space Defense Force that protects the Galaxy Railways from alien threats. Though they have their moments, these unfortunately lack the melancholy and humanity that really makes the original Galaxy Express 999 what it is.
Though imbued with such typically and profoundly sad Japanese sensibilities in which every episode makes you want to tear your heart out, Galaxy Express 999 is ultimately a beautiful hymn to being human and enjoying enfleshed existence in all it's joys and sorrows and sensations.