Thursday, 28 April 2011

Gun Frontier (2002)

Leiji Matsumoto is infamous for having a loose devotion to continuity. The "Leijiverse" consisting of Captain Harlock, Maetel, the Space Battleship Yamato, and the Galaxy Express 999 is less of a chronological timeline than it is a theatrical company that he employs for whatever stories spring to mind. One of the most unique of these melodramas is Gun Frontier.

A 13 episode strong series, Gun Frontier employs Harlock and the diminutive Tochiro as a pair of Wild West gunslingers. Pulled from space, they wander the frontier righting wrongs and being haunted by their tragic pasts as only Matsumoto characters can. Tochiro is one of the last survivors of the massacre of Samuari Town, part of a Japanese diaspora still hunted down by the shadowy organization that destroyed their idyllic life. Accompanying him is the sharpshooter Franklin Harlock Jr., a former sea-captain turned outlaw. They are joined by a typical, Maetel-like Matsumoto waif named Sinunora who is inevitably more than what she seems.

The distinction enjoyed by Gun Frontier is that, despite the tragic histories, it is a full-on buddy comedy. It would not be inaccurate to say that it actually has more in common with a series like Trigun than with Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Tochiro even lucks out by having Harlock as his sidekick this time... Though a lecherous, drunken dwarf, he is definitely something dangerous in a small package.

Matsumoto's common affectations are self-satirized. Each episode begins with a ponderous narration, only this time played up for laughs by being as pretentiously rough and manly as possible ("Gun Frontier... A harsh and barren wasteland where the weak aren't even allowed to dream... It is the holy ground for true men... Men whose souls endure their pain and weep in this unforgiving land... And yet there is no place where a man can feel more alive... This is Gun Frontier." or "This is a land where men die at the hands of other men... where shots are fired with fierce resolve... and where bullets land without any remorse... This land is Gun Frontier."). Humorous situations afflict the duo, and one episode has probably one of the more ridiculous sex scenes aired on television.

Gun Frontier is available on Hulu, but for those not in the United States, the English dub of episodes 1, 6, 7 and 8 are available on YouTube courtesy of Gong.

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Space Pirate Captain Harlock (1978-1979)

Leiji Matsumoto's most famous character is undoubtedly Captain Harlock, the mysterious interstellar swashbuckler with an unflinching ethical code. His manga debut was back in 1953, and his original animated appearance was supposed to be an arc in Matsumoto's classic Space Battleship Yamato. Those extra episodes were excised from the run, but Harlock graduated to his own series, Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Since then, he has appeared in numerous revisions of his storyline, as well as crossing over into Galaxy Express 999 and its related franchises.

This first series to feature Harlock takes place in the far future when Earth is ruled by a corrupt and complacent government. It is a world full of ease and luxury, thus devoid of passion and moral energy. Even when a massive black orb plunges from the sky and kills countless civilians, the authorities fail to act. They are content to let things slide until a "real threat" presents itself. The most passion is felt by the military commander who has a personal feud with the space pirate known as Captain Harlock.

Against this complacent government, Harlock is a man of passion and activity. He is regarded repeatedly, and positively, as a man who follows the dictates of his own heart. For the longest time this meant robbing from the rich shipments moving to Earth, but with the arrival of this devastating attack, he becomes the sole line of defense for humanity. He is not the only one to take notice, for the astronomer Tsuyoshi Daiba notices the encroaching fleet of alien Mazone warships. Though failing in his bid to convince the government of the crisis, Daiba is assassinated by enemy agents. His vengeful son Tadashi is conscripted by Harlock to join the fight.

Harlock's ship is the Arcadia, a hybrid of pirate ship, WWII battle cruiser and spacecraft. It also has an incredible secret locked away in its main computer, which becomes a major plot point for the Mazone when trying to defeat the shockingly successful pirate. Despite being disgusted with Earth and having a pretty fantastic ship, Harlock remains tied to humanity through Mayu, orphan daughter of the Arcadia's engineer. She has remained on the planet to have as normal a life as possible at the request of her late father, Tochiro Oyama. He was Harlock's closest friend and a brilliant scientist in his own right, his shadow looming large over the series and even bleeding over into Galaxy Express 999. It is Tochiro's hat and Cosmo Dragoon gun that Tetsuro bears.

Their enemy are a frightening extragalactic power. As a plant-based lifeform that spontaneously combusts on death, the Mazone long ago infiltrated Earth, planting themselves in the world's jungles and leaving bases hidden beneath polar ice. When the Mazone homeworld became unlivable, the civilization embarked on the plan to repossess Earth. Still, dissent brews amongst them as the voyage drags on and the battle with Harlock becomes ever more vicious.

In interviews, Leiji Matsumoto has denied that Space Pirate Captain Harlock is influenced by post-war Japan, the Empire's loss in WWII and subsequent occupation by Americans. He has only had to deny it because it is a theory that the series lends itself so easily to. Similar themes come out in shows like Space Battleship Yamato, which is based on the ill-starred Japanese battleship Yamato. Japan's defeat and its cultural toll could not have been uninfluential on Matsumoto, whose own father was a pilot.

In a recent interview for Otaku USA magazine and, Matsumoto described his broader philosophy of life. To be succinct, his broader philosophy is life... Life worth living, a life of passion and conviction. policy is that death is absolutely prohibited. People are born to live. Life is born to live. Only a fool would live to die. This is the most basic aspect of my work.

This philosophy underlies Galaxy Express 999 and Tetsuro's inner-conflict being living on in an immortal machine body or being truly alive in his mortal flesh. It is also Captain Harlock's philosophy: life at all costs, the preservation of life on Earth with all its hopes and possibilities and suffering. That is what faced him against an ambivalent government and then against the threat from the stars.

This devotion to life makes his movements incomprehensible to Queen Lafresia of the Mazone. She will stop at nothing and utilize every dirty tactic in the book to win her fight, and always Harlock stays one step ahead because she cannot figure out this principle of life. Even when she seems to understand it enough to entrap him, he still escapes her snare. However, though he seeks life for others, he is more ambivalent to his own. When he is asked directly about his motivations - in a situation that he knows Lafresia can hear - he says that he is looking for his own place to die. He fights because he has not yet found it.

The 42 episode run of Space Pirate Captain Harlock is considerably easier to manage than all 113 episodes of Galaxy Express 999. Like Galaxy Express, Captain Harlock is available for licenced viewing on FUNimation and Crunchyroll.

Sunday, 24 April 2011

VEx April Contest - The Half-Made World

The world is only half made. What exists has been carved out amidst a war between two rival factions: the Line, paving the world with industry and claiming its residents as slaves; and the Gun, a cult of terror and violence that cripples the population with fear. The only hope at stopping them has seemingly disappeared—the Red Republic that once battled the Gun and the Line, and almost won. Now they’re just a myth, a bedtime story parents tell their children, of hope. To the west lies a vast, uncharted world, inhabited only by the legends of the immortal and powerful Hill People, who live at one with the earth and its elements. Liv Alverhyusen, a doctor of the new science of psychology, travels to the edge of the made world to a spiritually protected mental institution in order to study the minds of those broken by the Gun and the Line. In its rooms lies an old general of the Red Republic, a man whose shattered mind just may hold the secret to stopping the Gun and the Line. And either side will do anything to understand how.

Courtesy of Tor Books, I have a hardcover copy of Felix Gilman's Fantasy Weird Western The Half-Made World to give away. To enter, just leave a comment on this post! Only entries with an e-mail contact on your profile or typed-out, will be eligible. I will draw a name out of the top hat at 12:00am, Sunday, April 24th.

And the winner is... Finn! Do check your inbox for a message. To everyone, thank you again for all your support and stay tuned for further contests!

Saturday, 23 April 2011

Network Awesome: The Madness of Ward Kimball

Unfortunately, because of my busy schedule the past few weeks, my second article for Network Awesome slipped under the radar. Dated to April 9th, I expounded on my affection of my favorite of Disney's Nine Old Men, Ward Kimball.
A man after my own heart, his first reported drawing was of a steam train. After seeing Disney's Three Little Pigs, this Santa Barbara School of Art student approached Walt and started working for him in 1934. His name can be seen on the credits of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, for which he animated several dwarf scenes and after which he moved on to creating one of the company's most enduring personalities, Jiminy Cricket. The Walt Disney Family Album episode featuring Kimball iterates the challenge of making a ghastly-looking insect into the lovable cartoon character that acted as a veritable mascot for the company for decades. His effervescent style is also notable in Dumbo's crows, Ichabod Crane, Lucifer the Cat and the mice from Cinderella, Professor Ludwig Von Drake, Pecos Bill and Alice in Wonderland's Mad Hatter, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, and the Walrus and the Carpenter.

Click on the banner below to read the whole piece:

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Galaxy Railways (2003-2004)

Galaxy Railways is that latest variation on the premise laid out by Leiji Matsumoto with Galaxy Express 999. In a universe of possibility and danger, the Galaxy Railways lines are under constant threat. The only force standing against those threats is the Space Defense Force, and its greatest troupe is the Sirius Platoon operating out of the massive train Big One, based on the Union Pacific Big Boy, largest steam train ever made in the United States.

The series focuses on Manabu, a new recruit following in the footsteps of his father and brother, both of whom died in the line of duty. In true Matsumoto/Galaxy Express fashion, the trauma of loss defines the characters. Years before, Manabu and his brother Mamoru stowed away on Big One as it pulled away to the scene of a crisis. An unknown alien force emerged from a wormhole to threaten a space train, forcing Manabu and Mamoru's father - commander of the Sirius Platoon - to sacrifice his own life to stop them. Watching their father die lights a fire under both boys. Unfortunately, after seeing Mamoru leave for the SDF aboard the 999, Manabu and his mother receive a phone call that he has died. Just to make sure he is thoroughly traumatized, Manabu is en route to the SDF headquarters when his train falls through a space-time rift in which he meets Mamoru on the day of his death.

The tone of Galaxy Railways pulls in equal parts from the melancholic themes of Galaxy Express 999 and the space operatics of Space Symphony Maetel. It is action-oriented, but there are still episodes like "Eternity", in which a man has to choose between living his own life or joining his deceased fiance on a train of the dead. Except for easter egg allusions, the crew of the Galaxy Express 999 do not appear until an as-yet unlicensed OVA, Galaxy Railways: A Letter From an Abandoned Planet. In this four-episode direct-to-video series, the 999 crashes on an off-limits planet that is home to one of the Sirius Platoon's newest recruits. Tetsuro and Manabu get separated from their respective groups and, considering how similar they are in temprament, get along about as well as one might expect.

This is not to say that the two series take place in exactly the same universe. Matsumoto is true to form, playing fast and loose with any idea of continuity. According to an interview with Matsumoto, Manabu and Mamoru are the younger brothers of Kei from Space Pirate Captain Harlock. Their drive to follow their father into space is partly driven by her having gone off with the rougish space pirate. But is there any indication of this backstory in the series itself? On the contrary, Kei's backstory is irreconcilable to this version. Like Maetel Legend making explicit the connections between Maetel, Emeraldas and Queen Millenium, the connection between the boys and their sister waits for a future animated bridge. However, to the extent that is applicable, Galaxy Railways explores far more deeply the mechanics of the Galaxy Railways and their fleet of space trains.

A further echo of Space Pirate Captain Harlock comes with the slow reveal of Galaxy Railways' villain. Most episodes of the series do not seem to deal with this threat that claimed the life of Manabu's father. Once they do appear and the first one spontaneously bursts into blue flame, however, those familiar with the "Leijiverse" might crack a smile. The pacing of the series is not all it could be, which is unfortunate. The conflict with these familiar sort of villains does not really pick-up until the last quarter and is never satisfactorily explored. Extra-dimensional entities have a paranoid vendetta against the Galaxy Railways for reasons barely given and never truly articulated.

Likewise, Matsumoto wants to give the series some kind of meaningful reflection on the subject of fate. Is fate predetermined? Or is fate shaped by the hopes and dreams of the young? The Galaxy Railways takes on this symbolic significance: the straightness of its rails implying a rigid destiny, and destiny going off the rails as the series progresses. That exact analogy is used by the characters and ubiquitous Matsumotian narrator, but the theme could have been explored far more thoroughly. Neither the plot with the invaders nor the theme of fate is satisfactorily developed in the short 24 episodes (compared to the 113 episodes of Galaxy Express 999, which admittedly were probably a season too many).

In spite of these reservations, nearly any visit to outer space via steam train is welcome, whether it is train 999 or 001. The final narration of the final episode (of the first season) is a charming and romantic summary of everything that Leiji Matsumoto's voyages to the stars are about. The first four episodes of Galaxy Railways (in English dub) can be viewed on FUNimation's official Youtube channel. The whole first series is currently available on DVD, which can be ordered through the official Galaxy Railways website.

Tuesday, 19 April 2011

Galaxy Express 999: Journey of Energy Over Time and Space (2010-2011)

Competing against its own epic 113 episode television run and two legendary feature films, further adventures of the Galaxy Express 999 have had to make due with little fits and starts. A prequel here, a special on the Galaxy Railways series there, being licenced out to waterbuses in Tokyo, the Nintendo DS, and now, Ginga Tetsudō 999: Jikū o Koeta Energy no Tabi.

These online shorts - translating as Galaxy Express 999: Journey of Energy Over Time and Space - were commissioned from Toei Animation and Leiji Matsumoto by Kyushu Electric Power Co., Inc. Handed several hundred thousand dollars, they reassembled the original cast and produced some quality animation charting Maetel and Tetsuro's further voyages. At each stop, including a return visit to Earth, they examine the futuristic production of energy resources.

Unfortunately, like all Galaxy Express 999 episodes, these are rather dialogue heavy and have not been blessed with English subtitles. Still, they are cute to watch. And if you pay attention to the numbers that flash at the close of each short, you can earn a nice desktop wallpaper for each of the two "seasons".

Click here to watch Galaxy Express 999: Journey of Energy Over Time and Space.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

Japan Hikarian Railroad Lightning Attack Express (1998-1999)

A little over ten years ago now, I came across this little character in the bowels of my city's Chinatown. On one of my regular jaunts through its miscellaneous shops I had seen an inexplicable series of cute little small-bodied train transformer guys - completely inexplicable since there is no corresponding TV show on Fox Kids - and lamented how cool it would be if they had a steam train. Not since the Transformer Astrotrain had there any kind of fusion of steam trains and Japanese giant fighting transforming robot technology. A few days later I returned whilst touring a friend around our downtown core and, lo, I found the steam train! Public squealing did follow.

His name is Dozilas, and he is one of 5 or so steam train guys in the Japan Hikarian Railroad Lightning Attack Express (or JHR), a toy line and anime about little small-bodied train guys who fight each other. From what I can gather from the translated webpages about it and from the 8 year old whose parents own the store I got them from, little alien energy beings have come to earth and inhabited trains, enabling them to transform into small-bodied robot guys. Not all are good, however, and the two steam trains D51 (Dozilas) and C55 (Wookary) work with the evil Bratchet Gang for whatever nefarious end they are working towards.

Intro to the 2002 version of the series.

One of the fellows below is D51, and the other small one is the other steam train, C55. The big one is called Smoke Joe, and in toy form, both D51 and C55 can fit inside him. The leader of the bad guys can also fit on top, making ol' Smoke Joe here the chosen mode of group transit for evil trains. Not that our two boys are evil as such. They are the bumbling, good-hearted henchmen who happened to fall in with the true badguy.

There were two other steam train guys, but so far as I know they were never rendered in plastic. The pictured one is C62, and he looks pretty impressive with the steam accents. I believe that he is with the good guys. Another one, not pictured, is a snowplow fellow who's name I don't know. In its initial run, before paring down for a brief 2002 revival, those energy beings made little robots out of practically every type of train engine in Japan. Gotta' get them al... no, wrong franchise...

Tuesday, 12 April 2011

Rail-G Station

Turning anything into a robot is one thing, and the Japanese do excel at it. However, they also excel at turning inanimate objects into anthropomorphised characters. For example, World War II.

They also do this to trains, which is the insanity going on at the Rail-G Station website.

My personal favorite is the C57, because she's a steam train.

Click here to enter Rail-G Station.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1934)

Courtesy of an anime feature film adaptation in 1985, Night on the Galactic Railroad (also translated as Night of the Milky Way Train and Fantasy Railroad in the Stars) is perhaps the most famous novella of Japanese writer Kenji Miyazawa. Published posthumously in 1934 as part of his collected works, the story underwent constant revision since its genesis in 1924 and none of the versions available to date are "complete" so far as the author's final wishes go. Nevertheless, being incomplete in itself gives Night on the Galactic Railroad its own poignancy.

Its most immediate grounding comes with the death of Miyazawa's sister Toshi in 1922. Kenji left his home in Hanamaki the year before out of disgust with his family's business and friction with its patriarch. The son of a pawnbroker, Kenji became ever more sensitive to the disparity between his family and the surrounding farmers from whom his family gained its wealth. He converted to a more activist sect of Buddhism, drawing him into a protracted conflict with his father until he left in 1921. Sadly, he returned to his sister's deathbed.

Until his death from pneumonia in 1933, Miyazawa stayed in the Hanamaki area, becoming an author, schoolteacher and improver of conditions for the people of the region. His first work, The Restaurant of Many Orders was self-published in 1924, followed by as many volumes of story and verse as he could save his wages up to print. At the Hanamaki Agriculture School he emphasized personal experience, pulling his students out of the classroom and into the fields more often than he let them sit at a desk. Miyazawa strove to inculcate an appreciation of nature, geology and astronomy in the young, as well as an appreciation of the arts. Music, poetry and theatre were also subjects which he encouraged, organizing public recitals of works created by the students. In 1926 he gave up teaching at the school to form the Rasu Farmers Association. It's object was to modernize the way of life of farmers, in addition to fostering scientific and cultural pursuits. His personal philosophy is exemplified in his poem Ame ni mo Makezu, discovered in a notebook after his death:
not losing to the rain
not losing to the wind
not losing to the snow nor to summer's heat
with a strong body
unfettered by desire
never losing temper
cultivating a quiet joy
every day four bowls of brown rice
miso and some vegetables to eat
in everything
count yourself last and put others before you
watching and listening, and understanding
and never forgetting
in the shade of the woods of the pines of the fields
being in a little thatched hut
if there is a sick child to the east
going and nursing over them
if there is a tired mother to the west
going and shouldering her sheaf of rice
if there is someone near death to the south
going and saying there's no need to be afraid
if there is a quarrel or a suit to the north
telling them to leave off with such waste
when there's drought, shedding tears of sympathy
when the summer's cold, wandering upset
called a blockhead by everyone
without being praised
without being blamed
such a person
I want to become

Immediately after the death fo Toshi, Kenji took a trip to the far northern island of Sakhalin. Long hours aboard the railways running across Japan left him with much time to reflect on feelings of death and loss, regret, loneliness, true happiness and that which makes for a well-lived life. Those reflections distilled into Night on the Galactic Railroad.

The novella opens with Giovanni, a boy from an impoverished family, sitting in school at the mercy of his tormentors. Because of his family's estate and his own need to work to get them by, he has been unable to make connections and spend time with his classmates. The result is his desperate loneliness at their cruel hands. One insult they get a great deal of mileage out of is his father's absence. A sailor, Giovanni looks forward to his return. His classmates, on the other hand, are convinced of the rumour that he went off on an illegal hunt for otter furs and has been arrested. Constantly they taunt Giovanni with the question of whether his dad will bring him back an otter-skin coat.

His only friend is Campanella, one of the most popular kids. Giovanni and Campanella's fathers were friends and the two grew together in a pitying sort of way. Campanella doesn't really need Giovanni, but he recognizes that Giovanni needs him. This friendship leads to a shared trip aboard the Galactic Railroad on the night of the Centaurus Festival. After being taunted again by the other kids, Giovanni fled from the riverbanks where lanterns were being floated to lie alone on a hilltop, gazing at the stars. Suddenly a light flashed, a voice cried out "Milky Way Station!" and Giovanni found himself inside the carriage of a steam train, sitting across from a soaking wet Campanella. Next stop, Swan Station in the constellation of Cygnus.

The Milky Way, that great band of stars of which every society has some significant mythology, becomes in Miyazawa's art a glittering river flanked by silvery pampas grass and star-like beacons. Each constellation is a station along the railway, with its own lessons. At Cyngus, the pair meet a palaentologist digging up the remains of a prehistoric cow. He exclaims that the excavation is necessary to demonstrate a multi-layered understanding of reality, poetic and scientific. Other people, without that appreciation, may just see "wind and water and empty sky". At Scorpio they hear the story of the scorpion who spent his life feeding on others but fled into a well when something came along to eat him. Fearful at his cowardice and lamenting his useless death, he prayed to be somehow made useful for others and became the constellation burning bright.

The arrival of a group of passengers from a tragic sunken ship begets a discussion about necessity, God, the nature of happiness and the ability to reign one's fate. When the train arrives at the Northern Cross, the former passengers of this ocean liner which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic are instructed to depart... God is calling them to Heaven. Giovanni and Campanella stay behind, the former pledging to ride the rails with his friend forever. Some destinies, however, are unavoidable and all that matters is to make the time one has mean the most it possibly can.

Tuesday, 5 April 2011

Japan's Vintage Railways

Ordinarily, one does not immediately think of railways when Japan comes to mind. Perhaps the famous bullet train Shinkansen does, but the chugging steam engine is not one of the usual images of tranquility, beauty, giant monsters and flashing blades usually conjured by the Land of the Rising Sun. Yet it does occupy a special place in the Japanese cultural psyche, symbolic of life's journeys and transitions.

The railway arrived in Japan in October of 1872, as part of the Westernizing reforms ushered in by the Meiji Emperor in the wake of the bloody, revolutionary Boshin War in 1868-69. Shook awake by Commodore Perry in 1853, progressives in Japan fought to bring the island into the modern, 19th century and compete with Euro-American powers on their own proverbial turf. Knowledge of railways was not absent amongst the Tokugawa Shogunate. Locomotives had been read about in foreign reports since the 1840's. Cultural mores stalled their importation, however. Prohibitions on movement amongst the populace, requiring checkstops and authorizing papers, made mass transportation an impossibility until the revolution. Thereafter, foreign experts were brought in, foreign technologies studied, and the steam engine introduced. Not surprisingly, the first line stretched between the foreign enclave of Yokohama and Shimbashi in Tokyo.

First Steam Train Leaving Yokohama by Baido Kunimasa, 1872.

View of Ueno-Nakasendo Railway from Ueno
Station, Tokyo
by Tsumekichi Nogawa, 1885.

The first of steam train in Japan.

The first steam engine to be made in Japan would not be put together until 1893, followed a mere two years later by Japan's first electric streetcar in Kyoto. At around the same time, a critical mass of rail companies was reached, fostering the the kind of competition for passengers that drives the creation of a rail culture. In 1898, San'yo Railway brought waiters aboard. Then in 1899, San'yo started first class service with a buffet on its express lines, followed a year later by sleeping cars. The proliferation of rail companies was so great that in 1906, the government nationalized many of them under the banner of Japanese Government Railways. Only local and regional lines were allowed to continue unmolested.

A 1906 steam train.

Hankyu Railways serviced the area around Osaka, including a terminus at the tourist destination of Takarazuka. Already famous for its hotsprings, Hankyu president Ichizo Kobayashi felt that something more was needed to draw even that many more visitors. Looking to New York's Broadway and Parisian cabarets for inspiration, he created the Takarazuka Kagekidan in 1914. The revue, which still performs today under the auspices of Hankyu, was a unique form of all-female musical theatre. By 1924 they were popular enough to warrant their own Grand Theatre.

Photo from the inagural Takarazuka
performance of Donburako in 1914.

One notable citizen of Takarazuka was a young Osamu Tezuka. As an adult, he would create some of Japanese pop culture's most globally beloved characters, such as Astro-Boy, Kimba the White Lion and Blackjack. Another of those characters was Princess Knight. Tezuka's mother befriended several Takarazuka Kagekidan members and he saw many of their performances, being captivated by the gender subversion implicit in the all-female cast. To this day, it is common and fairly normal for a Japanese girl's first crush to be one of the performers specializing in male roles. These issues were articulated in Princess Knight, one of the first "shoujo manga" comics written especially for women, about a girl born with conflicting impulses towards traditionally masculine and feminine roles. Takarazuka Kagekidan and its competitors also became the backdrop for the Sakura Wars franchise, about a troupe of Kagekidan performers who also use steam-powered battlesuits to fight demons in 1920's Japan. The franchise included video games, manga, anime and lavish Kagekidan-style live stage shows.

Still from a more modern Takarazuka performance
of The Elegy of a White Flower from 1951.

Japanese Government Railways (JGR), like railway companies around the world, took upon itself the task of enticing tourists to visit the Island Empire. The government worked with private industry to create the Japan Tourist Association, and one of the results was a series of 14 high-quality tourist resort hotels throughout the country. The Kamikochi Imperial Hotel near Nagano was built in 1933 in the midst of "The Japanese Alps" and sports a National Parks Rustic flavour unique in Japan. Located in the coastal town of Gamagori, the Gamagori Hotel still offers lavish treatment. In a more traditional Japanese style, the iconic hotel now operated by the Prince chain has included the Emperors of Japan in its register.

Kamikochi Imperial Hotel, Nagano Prefecture.

Gamagori Hotel, Aichi Prefecture.

The Imperial Train.

Another urban hotel was the Tokyo Station Hotel, completed in 1914 along with Tokyo Station itself. The resolve to build the station came in 1896 but construction was not started until 1908 on account of the Sino-Japanese and Russo-Japanese wars. Like many buildings of the Meiji period, it was built in a more European style utilizing red brick and arguable influences from the main station in Amsterdam. Much of the building was destroyed in the 1945 firebombings of Tokyo, but much has been preserved and the station still serves as busiest station in the city in terms of rail traffic. The first subway arrived in the Far East in 1927, being the Tokyo Metro Ginza Line. Two years before, Tokyo's main line, the Yamanote loop, was inaugurated.

Tokyo Station and Hotel.

Railways were not merely a mechanism for tourism, but for imperial expansion. It is no coincidence that the nationalization of the railways took place just after the close of the Russo-Japanese War. Doing so consolidated the lines for the purposes of military strategy. The Japanese government was responsible for building the railways in its captured territories, such as Korea, Taiwan, Sakhalin and Northeast China.

The South Manchuria Railway in Northeast China.

The workhorse engine of the JGR (later Japanese National Railways [JNR] and currently Japan Railway Group [JR]) was the D51 engine. Over 1,100 of these "Degoichi" were produced between 1936 and 1951, and were still in use on the northern island of Hokkaido and in parts of Russia until 1979. In the Japanese consciousness, it has become the archetypal steam locomotive.

A coal-hauling D51 engine pulling into
Numanosawa Station on Hokkaido.

Another popular engine was the C62, which were built in 1948 and 49, and which were the largest and fastest trains to operate in the country at the time. The engine achieved particular notoriety for being the engine behind Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999.

A C62 engine.

A C55 engine.

The symbolic attributes of the steam train may be said to have entered the popular consciousness in the 1930's with the posthumous publication of Kenji Miyazawa's A Night on the Galactic Railroad. A melancholy rail journey in the wake of his sister's passing inspired his fairy tale about a pair of boys who take a train trip through the Milky Way, as along a shimmering, crystal river. This incredibly touching story in turn inspired Matsumoto to use a C62 engine as the basis for his own steam train trip through outer space, in which a boy is taken by a mysterious female companion on a self-reflective journey to receive a mechanical robot body.

Filmmakers also made use of the steam train's symbolic attributes. Yasujiro Ozu specialized in contemporary films in the post-war period, his most widely known being Tokyo Story (1953), and frequently involves the visual of a train. A series of languid panoramas of a sleepy coastal village open Tokyo Story, including one in which a charging freight train steams between picturesque tile rooftops. Here once more, the train can represent the linear inevitability of circumstance as conducts the middle class families of Ozu's films to their crises and turning points.

Historically, the shape of rail's introduction to Japan and its development into a tourism industry mirrors that of the West. Unlike the West, steam trains have taken on a symbolic strength that permeates the culture... Melancholy, wistful, an image of the voyage and sadness of life itself.

Steam through the snow, Hokkaido.