Thursday, 18 February 2010

Galaxy Express 999: The Ride

The Shinagawa Prince Hotel in Tokyo is a world unto itself. Featured in the film Lost in Translation, it is a refuge for weary travelers who find street-level doses of the Japanese metropolis overwhelming. In an enclosed environment one can experience karaoke and sushi and shopping, as well as movie theatres, bowling, an aquarium, and nestled deep in its bowels, a roller coaster based on Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999.

The EPSON Shinagawa Aqua Stadium includes the aforementioned aquarium as well as a swinging boat ride themed to pirates and a carousel, and back behind all of them is the entrance to the Galaxy Railways' Shinagawa Prince Station. The arrivals board clacks away to announce that the 999 is ready to take passengers, and while singles from the Galaxy Express 999 film plays, helpful hosts usher you into the foyer.

Said foyer is a heaven for Galaxy Express fans. Three display cases are filled with replica weapons, animation stills and original paintings by Leiji Matsumoto. A giant picture window at one end features replica costumes of the Conductor, Tetsuro and Maetel. There is also a board describing the taxi shuttle which takes you to the 999's platform.

Doors open and another host takes you to what I suppose to be customs and security point. Three-dimensional lenticular images on the floor show Megalopolis from the top to give an illusion of the station's great height and illuminated posters on the walls advertise the Galaxy Railways and their various routes. Suddenly, two cyborg police officers give a short, animatronic spiel before the host opens a door and you're ushered into the shuttle.

The shuttle's doors close and the screen flickers on. A CGI version of the Conductor greets us and explains that the shuttle will take us through the city's great glass transit tunnels, which it proceeds to. However, our shuttle is intercepted by Queen Prometheum, who warps us far and away... Right into the horizon of a black hole! Nevertheless, our shuttle is being piloted by none other than Tetsuro and Maetel, who call upon Captain Harlock and Emeraldas. Unleashing the firepower of the Arcadia and Queen Emeraldas, they proceed to blow up the black hole. Then Faust arrives from the Adieu Galaxy Express 999 feature film, forcing a gunfight with Tetsuro. After the boy dispatches his father and Maetel verbally confronts her mother, they (and us) are returned to Megalopolis, whereupon we arrive at the 999's platform. Previous cinematic sequences had the shuttle intercepted by Count Mecha and his Time Castle from the feature film.

The doors open again and the hosts take us to the 999 herself. Or more correctly, to the roller coaster in a bay made to look like the interior of the 999. Neatly tucked in, the coaster launches into outer space, swirling around in a field of stars, nearly colliding with another train and narrowly avoiding nebulae.

Is it a good ride? Not really. Imagine a budget Space Mountain, which is rather shorter and not executed quite as well. One of the major problems is that the coaster is too well lit. The effect of star fields and Galaxy Railway train projections is lost when you can see the cords and the edges of the screen! The best portion is the lead-up, seeing the props, costumes and the shuttle simulator. And all of this for only JPY1000!

Even more disappointing was the fact that by the time I arrived, the gift shop associated with the ride had long since closed down. There went the hope I had of finding a model of the 999 for my desk. Thankfully it was only a short train ride over to the otaku commercial centre of Akihabara, where I was able to find a few mementos of my favorite anime series of all time.

Despite its flaws, one will still pay the JPY1000 (roughly $10) to ride the ride if one is obsessive enough about Galaxy Express 999 to want to ride it to begin with. It benefits from being the only 999 attraction in the world. However, there is another attraction of interest to fans that is charming and practical at the same time.

Recognizing the needs of tourists to go back and forth from major centres to the island playground of Odaiba, Tokyo Cruises commissioned Leiji Matsumoto to design the waterbus Himiko. Guided by the inspirations of a teardrop and a shape pleasing to children, Matsumoto designed a craft that looks every bit like it flew out of Galaxy Express, Harlock or Yamato.

Furthermore, it makes ready reference to Matsumoto's greatest work. Just behind the pilot's cabin are stand-up cutouts of the Conductor, the movie version of Tetsuro and Maetel. As the ship departs Asakusa, the taped narration begins to play, in which the trio - courtesy of their original voice actors - describe the bridges and sights that the Himiko passes by en route to Odaiba. Their narration is in Japanese, of course, but their voices are immediately recognizable. It also makes for a weird effect when one hears the Conductor announce their own departure point!

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