Monday, August 5, 2013

take you on a journey

I first saw Galaxy Express 999 on a bootleg VHS bought from one of Atlanta's hairier comic-con video pirates, sometime in the mid 1980s. The Kodak T-120, with the words "Galaxy Express" markered on its orange-yellow label, was a copy of the home video release of New World Pictures' version of the 999 film, which received an American theatrical release for about fifteen minutes before moving to HBO and video-rental shelves. I knew none of this. What I knew was that there was something called "Galaxy Express" that Leiji Matsumoto had created, and he was the guy behind Captain Harlock and half of Star Blazers and who knows what else? At that time, we knew Japanese animation as a weird neverland that existed only in the colorful hieroglyphs of Roman Album fold-out posters and My Anime cassette labels, glimpses caught on afternoon UHF stations between ads for Cookie Crisp and Fruit Roll-Ups, peering out at us in the form of model kits from something called "Gundam" that had suddenly appeared in the toy stores. 

Certainly Japanese animated films weren’t something you could just sit down and watch any old time you felt like it. Only now you could, provided you could get access to the family TV for a couple of hours. And in spite of the hacky dub, in spite of the comical name changes, in spite of the jarring edits (seriously, the New World version edits out all the cats), in spite of the fuzzy duplication of a copy of New World's less-than-stellar transfer, there's something about Galaxy Express 999 that shines. Recently, we got the chance to see the film, not on bootleg VHS or late night cable TV but as God and Rintaro intended, uncut and in a real theater.

There's a lot of good stuff in that late 70s-early 80s sweet spot of Japanese animation that some call the Yamato Boom and others refer to in terms of Gundam, when public interest, creative talent, and licensing cash all coincided to create a kaleidoscope of film and TV of every conceivable topic and level of quality. Out of that boom came many great projects, but I’ll always have a weakness for Galaxy Express 999.

999's pedigree is top-notch. It has Rintaro stretching his muscles in his first feature film and Yoshinori Kanada bringing his talent and his timing from dozens of the best TV animation. It has character designs by K. Kazuo and lush Tadao Kubota backgrounds featuring the crumbling, overbuilt Earth, the lurid jungles of Titan, the outer-space Wild West of Heavy Meldar, and the neon and black of the Mechanized Planet.

Thematically, the film works as space fantasy, as a childhood fairy tale, as a humanist polemic, as class-war fable. Sometimes, as when the giant death-skull of Harlock's Arcadia smashes the eternal-life headquarters on the Mechanized Planet, the film's subtext erupts out of theory and just sits there on the screen daring you to call its bluff. And as a condensation of a 113-episode TV series it gets us from Earth to the Andromeda Galaxy and back again in just over two hours, hitting the high notes, rearranging story elements but retaining the Bildungsroman of Tetsuro Hoshino, orphaned on a future world where the rich live forever in machine bodies while the poor scurry like rats to starve, freeze or be hunted. 

how many machine men will you see before you stop believing
To avenge the death of his mother at the hands of the feudal machine lord Count Mecha, Tetsuro finds himself on the Galaxy Express 999, the limited express space train that delivers people to the Mechanization Planet in Andromeda, where eternal machine bodies are distributed to the wealthy.  Accompanied by the mysterious beauty Maetel, Tetsuro meets his childhood heroes, satisfies his lust for revenge at Count Mecha’s Time Castle, and learns the terrible truth behind his traveling companion in a planet-destroying cataclysm that shakes the political and social structure of two galaxies.

For a while that bootleg Kodak was our only copy of 999.  Then somebody in the local anime club dug up an English-subtitled copy, not fansubs but typeset-on-the-35mm-print emulsion subtitles, and we found out about all the missing cats.  Later we’d pool our cash and get the Galaxy Express movie laserdisc set and fansub the sequel Adieu Galaxy Express, and then Viz released both films in subtitled and dubbed versions.  Now in the 21st century, Discotek has released both films – and the third 999 film, Eternal Fantasy -  on DVD.

There’s nothing like seeing a movie with a crowd of strangers to force an objective evaluation, and the recent screening highlighted what may be the film’s weakest point; how well it works with people who don’t already know who Harlock and Emeraldas and Tochiro are. Japanese audiences in 1979 were likely familiar with the Captain Harlock and 999 television anime, or they’d read the Harlock manga in Play Comic or the Shonen King 999 manga serial.  To be fair, the 999 movie is quick to educate us – not five minutes in, we get a loving zoom of Harlock’s wanted poster on a crumbling Megalopolis wall, and elementary adventure-movie macguffin-hunting brings the three characters into the film with reasonable logic. 

While it’s still not really clear who Emeraldas is or what she does, top marks for strangeness must go to Tochiro Oyama’s bachelor digs in the guts of a ruined space battleship, a beautiful if confusing sequence for audiences who hadn’t had months of Captain Harlock on TV preparing us. You can actually see otaku-nerd culture seeping into popular culture with this scene – the idea that vital script elements can come from completely separate media, and if the viewer is confused as to why the squat little dude is having lightning shot into his body and as to why this film seems to think it’s important, tough darts, pal. 

 This might explain why the backstory so meaningful to Japanese audiences failed to impress execs at New World when the pic was readied for American release in 1980. Apart from editing out all the cats, New World made extensive cuts to many sequences, downplayed the Matsumotoverse callbacks to Tochiro’s mom, and left out tragic 999 waitress Crystal Claire’s end-of-film sacrifice (which, to be honest, feels superfluous).  Taken in context, New World’s decision to give Harlock a comedy John Wayne voice almost (almost) makes sense – without the necessary pop-culture preparation, audiences don’t know or care who Captain Harlock is; but give Americans a recognizable cultural signifier and suddenly his archetype fits neatly into our mental picture, as a manly hero who is at home, as Wayne was, both on the open range and on the bridge of a warship. 

I saw this in action last week in Toronto; you can feel the audience starting to get antsy somewhere out near the orbit of Pluto, not quite buying into this whole space-train thing, and then suddenly we’re on Heavy Meldar, the space-western zeitgeist clicks into place, and the crowd relaxes with an audible sigh of familiarity, able to finally place this film in their mental filmic landscape, even if they’re still fuzzy on who Harlock, Tochiro, and Emeraldas are. The screening at TIFF Bell Lightbox was part of the TAAFI’s yearly Toronto animation festival, in conjunction with the Japan Foundation, who provided the 35mm print from their library. The theater was pleasantly filled – we were informed this event had the largest crowd of any TAAFI event – and I found myself explaining the plot of Adieu Galaxy Express afterwards to anyone who would listen, having fallen in love with this movie all over again. The film had always been on the shortlist of titles I’ve sought out on the big screen; we finally got to see an uncut Nausicaa in North American cinemas with the recent Ghibli retrospective, and if they can ever get the Macross rights cleared up maybe I can cross that one off my bucket list, too. However, a pass on the Galaxy Express 999 was always my anime-cinema dream, now realized thanks to TAAFI, the Japan Foundation, the TIFF Bell Lightbox, and the boundless generosity of mysterious beauties from space.

-Dave Merrill

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Chris Sobieniak said...

Now I remind myself of this!

d.merrill said...

Thanks for posting this! Shain recalls seeing the TV ads for its theatrical run in Nashville, but I was unable to find anything about it online.

Chris Sobieniak said...

I'm glad to help!

Still sad thinking of the cats that where left on the cutting room floor in this(Skip Schoolnik had his work cut out for him, didn't he?). I thought a greater sin was not including Godiego's tunes but I suppose they either didn't care or didn't get the rights to said tunes (having bought the R3 Korean DVD set of the two movies years back, I noticed the Korean track had both tunes fully in English which sounded like a plus to me though Viz used the originals anyway).

Anime Feed said...

Very neat article post.Really looking forward to read more. Will read on...

patokon said...

Manga fans eyes tend to glaze over when I start to gush about the manga version. I avoided this series because I had no interest in trains or the funny looking Tetsuro, though I thought Maetel was intriguing. When a friend of mine married, he gave me all his hard(ish)back collections that were in fashion at the time including GE999. I had already read Harlock, Emereldas, Yamato, and even Gun Frontier so I finally gave in and started in on the 10 vol (18 in the smaller format) set. It quickly became my favorite Matsumoto series and the one I reread the most. Tetsuro keeps running into people and situations that threaten to destroy his hope. Space is a cold place. You have to be colder to survive there. But no matter how difficult the situation and no matter how terrible are the things he's forced to do, Tetsuro remains a pure, innocent beacon of the best of humanity and the universe doesn't change him, he changes the universe.
After a reread, I remember to put away my cynical sneers for a while and am reminded to look for the tiny flashes of beauty buried among the mediocre and the horrible. This is a series that desperately needs a nice English translation in an easy to access format.