Galaxy Express 999 is a beautiful movie. Leji Matsumoto’s 1979 production depicts the majesty of space, alluring alien beings and a unique synthesis of past and future technologies in such an attractive and distinct manner that the film still looks gorgeous more than thirty-five years later. Galaxy’s protagonist, the young boy Tetsuro, also marvels at his galaxy’s grandeur as he sets out on his journey to gain a mechanized body. Yet, the deeper into space his journey takes him, the more ugliness he encounters. Tetsuro is no innocent little lamb; he has seen ugliness and known his share of suffering. However, what he learns on his journey is that a corrupt institution, rather than single individuals, bears ultimate responsibility for not only his own personal tragedy but also injustices against countless others. What begins as a personal crusade for revenge becomes a quest to topple the unjust and dehumanizing institutions perpetuating suffering throughout the galaxy.
Matsumoto seems to see the world through morally charged lenses because he has created a universe whose moral dimension spills over into every other aspect of it. There are definitively right and wrong answers to the question, “How should we then live?”. Causes of existential displacement and human suffering aren’t impersonal or accidental, at least not primarily. In the Lejiverse, the lack felt by some is directly proportional and causally related to the inordinate gain of others. The least off aren’t that way by coincidence but because of the vices of the haves, the ruling class. Here is where institutions come into play. Galaxy Express 999 paints the institution sought by Tetsuro as a mechanism of social control.
At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to Tetsuro as a devil-may-care orphan but quickly learn he dreams of boarding the 999 in order to travel to the place where he can receive a mechanized body. He initially wanted this as a means to escape the limitations of his physical body; however, Tetsuro’s motive changes when Count Mecha kills the boy’s mother right in front of him. As someone who paid handsomely for his mechanized body, Count Mecha has come to believe over time that mechanized beings are superior to plain old human beings in the way some might think of the latter as superior to, say, ducks. Thus, Count Mecha hunts human beings for sport. The count liked the look of Tetsuro’s mother and simply decided he’d have her mounted on his wall. So, for much of Galaxy’s story, Tetsuro desires a mechanized body for the sake of the power he will be granted from it, the power to kill Count Mecha.
The way the Galaxy Express figures into Tetsuro’s ambition is that the legendary train is the only way for him to travel to Planet Maetel (a planet that is wholly machine), where rumor has it that anyone who ask will be given a mechanized body, free of charge. What he doesn’t know is that those who are gifted such bodies are permanently conscripted into the service of Queen Prometheum. One might be forced to serve as a member of her honor guard or, even worse, become part of the structural support of Planet Maetel itself. As previously mentioned, Count Mecha purchased his new body for a substantial amount of money, and this is the conventional method of acquiring one. Those who can afford to pay for mechanization are not forced to serve Prometheum. Bypassing the restraints and inconveniences of one’s birth body is just a form of control put into place by the state, Planet Maetel. When the impoverished see mechanized humans living their lives without worry about getting sick or aging, they begin to see mechanization as a “way out” of their own bleak situation, and this deception is also a part of the mechanism by which Prometheum continually acquires new mechanical “parts.”
This Promethean institution of mechanization dehumanizes untold numbers of people. There is, of course, the quite literal way in which becoming mechanized is dehumanizing, since it strips away one of a person’s essential human characteristics, namely their physical body. But, what I’d like to emphasize is how the institution robs individuals of their human dignity. Certainly, the case of Count Mecha illustrates the divide that has formed between the mechanized and non-mechanized, with the former free to oppress the latter. It should be noted that the non-mechanized aren’t the only ones who suffer under this system. The audience is also privy to scenes in which the mechanized feel regret, isolation and deep emotional disturbance concerning their choice to forsake their biological bodies. Some characters sell their birth bodies. We see one character staring longingly at her frozen, original body, her eyes filled with profound sadness. Another particular memorable character is experiencing a psychological breakdown due to her inability to chose to return to her beautiful physical body or to allow it to remain suspended in its most beautiful state forever. Unlike Tetsuro, these characters are not driven to mechanization due to institutional inequality, yet the prevalence of the institution puts its own kind of pressures on affluent members of society.
During the course of his journey, Tetsuro comes to the realization that, rather than just avenging his departed mother, he also wants to destroy the institution that allows an individual like Count Mecha to obtain power and exercise it without consequence. And, he does just that. Tetsuro ultimately annihilates both entities, and we are treated to some absolutely beautiful scenes of massive architectural structures collapsing, eroding and/or exploding. While these parts are gorgeously animated and accompanied by a certain degree of triumphalism, Matsumoto expresses a fantastic bit of nuance during these parts of the film by having these moments feel bittersweet.
The crumbling of Count Mecha’s Time Castle and Queen Prometheum’s Planet Maetel are melancholic events for a couple of reasons. First, though Matsumoto has established that these institutions are dehumanizing, he also knows that institutions are comprised of individuals. In both scenes of glorious destruction, there is at least one person caught in the blast who you feel sympathy for, regardless of their attachment to an unethical institution. Secondly, Matsumoto is keenly aware that the collapse of a monolithic, controlling structure can trigger existential crises in the previously-controlled. When the sheep lose their shepherd they feel displaced, even if the shepherd was a bad one. In the minds of the people, there will now be a void where there was once purpose, a purpose violently imposed but a purpose nonetheless. Matsumoto’s response to this problem lies in his heroes, specifically in their willingness to forge their own purposes.
Though it may be extremely difficult for people to find or create their purpose once their old one has been taken away, Matsumoto believes that this process is fundamental to being human. This is why characters like Harlock, Emeraldas, and even Maetel by the end of the film, are celebrated as heroes within the fiction of the Lejiverse. These characters cast off the purposes that were forced on them and decide, of their own free will, to sail the sea of stars searching for their own path. Harlock in particular has always been a proverbial thorn in the side of the state because he is a person no institution can exercise control over. Earlier, I state that Matsumoto considers the question “How should we then live?” a deeply moral one and that he believes there are correct answers to it. Harlock’s answer is one of those correct answers, and Tetsuro, free from the Promethean state, takes his first steps on a similar path at the close of Galaxy Express 999.