I was first introduced to the anime space opera Galaxy Express 999 in college with zero context, and in hindsight, I could not have imagined a more ideal way to have learned of such a thing being a thing in the first place.
You see, non-mecha sci-fi stories really aren’t all that common in the world of anime.
Which makes Galaxy Express 999 even more of a sleeper treat.
Leiji Matsumoto’s Shogakukan Manga Award-winning manga was adapted for anime a little over a year after its debut, being produced by none other than Toei Animation, the studio behind classics such as Dragon Ball and Sailor Moon (1978-1981).
The distinct western-inspired designs and overall “rougher,” hand-drawn look to Galaxy Express 999 possess a charm that screams 80’s. With that said, the plot hits the ground running with its first episode introducing us to ten-year-old protagonist Tetsuro Hoshino and his mother in desperate pursuit of a dream.
That dream being the freedom to live, eternal life by means of a machine body.
In the world of Galaxy Express 999, the people of earth may only gain access to the rest of the universe (the Andromeda Galaxy in particular) via the eponymous space train that boards once a year.
As you can imagine, themes of agency, class, and identity ensue.
Not just any person gets access to the Galaxy Express 999. While attempting to find the train for themselves, Tetsuro and his mother are attacked by “human hunters.” In a cruel (and inevitable, as is often the case for preteen and teen main characters) twist of fate, Tetsuro is left to brave the elements alone, an orphan.
That is, until our precocious boy is saved, and given a means for revenge, by a woman resembling the very mother he lost.
What Is The Galaxy Express 999 Movie?
In a similar vein to other anime that end up gaining popularity well beyond expectations, the Galaxy Express 999 movie (1979) is more or less a retelling of the anime series; but even then, this type of movie is pretty rare.
The movie follows the same plot as its predecessors, but being given one-hundred and thirty minutes of screentime to work with in contrast to its anime counterpart’s whopping one-hundred and thirteen episodes’ worth of storytelling requires cutting quite a bit.
The movie focuses on Tetsuro and Maetel, the mother look-alike to whom Tetsuro owes his life, making their way to the planet responsible for manufacturing mechanical bodies at the end of Galaxy Express 999’s route. While the pair do some planet-hopping during their journey, the movie doesn’t delve into nearly as many foreign worlds as the TV show.
Unsurprisingly, Tetsuro acts as a POV character through which we learn more about the ugly sides of immortality and mechanization as well as the wonders of space in general. With that said, the mysterious Maetel is the one who truly steals the show.
We get more answers from this movie than the series in regards to Maetel as the former explores who she is and how she came to meet Tetsuro as if by fate.
What Is The Adieu Galaxy Express 999 Movie?
The Adieu Galaxy Express 999 movie (1981) acts as a direct sequel, and a completely original story at that, that takes place three years after the events of the first movie.
The Galaxy Express 999 movie ends with Tetsuro and Maetel going their separate ways after having overseen permanent change on Planet Prometheum (referred to as Planet Maetel in the first movie). However, the pair are reunited in Adieu Galaxy Express 999 as freedom fighter and heiress.
Tetsuro and Maetel fight to change the tyrannical Machine Empire for good, making new allies and revelations that this writer is convinced inspired Bong Joon-Ho’s Snowpiercer up until their final parting.
This movie does a lot of things a well-written sequel should by bringing two characters back to the big screen, familiar, but forever changed, and fleshing out the universe even further. I think the most interesting space operas are open to dipping their toes in genres and tropes other than typical “space stuff.”
In the spirit of Galaxy Express 999, what makes Adieu unique is its addition of relatively grounded demon and witch-inspired mythos.
What Happened Post-Adieu Galaxy Express 999?
Remember when I mentioned Maetel “stealing the show?”
Well, that became very apparent during the post-Adieu Galaxy Express 999 era.
With the success of Adieu Galaxy Express 999, mangaka Leiji Matsumoto proceeded to write a sequel series to his manga, a series that was then adapted for a third film called Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy in 1998.
In 2000, a two-parted prequel OVA focusing on Maetel’s past called Maetel Legend was released. In 2004, a thirteen-parted sequel to this OVA called Space Symphony Maetel was released delving into Maetel’s personal relations and role as a “cog” in the Machine Empire.
Last but not least, a “midquel” OVA that presumably takes place after Eternal Fantasy titled Galaxy Railways: Letter From An Abandoned Planet (2006-2007) was released, leaving behind quite the thought-provoking legacy in its wake.