It's compressing a 113-episode Leiji Matsumoto anime series into a movie, but surprisingly this works. I've heard it's not as good as the TV series, but I thought it was more than respectable.
Firstly, the 1978 series. I haven't seen it, but it's Tomoko's favourite Matsumoto show, even though about 100 of its 113 episodes are filler. Every week, a new planet. I've been told that only about twenty episodes really rock, but it has a great final stretch even if they blow it at the end by not doing the manga's finale. Apparently also the artwork's gorgeous, if you're not thrown by Matsumoto's character designs.
The series concept is a doozy, though. The Galaxy Express is a train in space. You know, just like some SF stories will show an old-fashioned sailing ship in space for its surrealism value, e.g. Enlightenment. (There's one of those here too.) This might sound like a stupid idea, but in fact it's far more memorable than some spaceship. Then on top of that is Matsumoto's idea for the story, which is that in this fictional universe, you can buy immortality. It's not even difficult. You just need to get yourself a machine body, after which you're a Cyberman and theoretically indestructible. Of course this has emotional downsides, but most people don't think about them until afterwards. You could do a lot with themes like that and Matsumoto does, especially since his protagonists are a twelve-year-old boy (Tetsuro) and a woman who's the spitting image of the boy's murdered mother (Maetel).
Anyway, that's what the show's about. The film's basically the highlights of that, with added fanwank with Harlock, Emeraldas and Tochiro.
For a while it feels a bit random. It kicks off with Tetsuro's origin story and that's good, but after that we're aboard the Galaxy Express and making twenty-minute pit stops on random planets, as per the TV series. I can't complain, of course. That's the formula. However the film has more force when it's doing big story turning points and life-changing stuff to the lead characters.
The cast is, if anything, too great. They've got so many iconic Matsumoto characters they want to squeeze in that it perhaps does a disservice to Galaxy Express 999. Harlock and Emeraldas turn up a lot to save Tetsuro, although I enjoyed this because they're cool. Seriously. Harlock gets an awesome entrance. Then you've got what happens with Tochiro, which is a fulcrum of the Matsumoto mythos and I don't believe I'd ever seen it in animated form before. In fact, I wish I'd watched this before Space Pirate Captain Harlock. I'd been told at the time that Tochiro was the soul of the Arcadia, but this film not only shows that to you but weaves it into its cyber-immortality theme.
Mind you, the finale is silly. Harlock and Emeraldas wade in with their (indestructible?) battleships to blow the place up, laying waste to all before them. Wow, pirate ships are strong. Harlock also stands ON TOP OF his spaceship in the middle of this firefight rather than inside it, because.... um, because he's Harlock. He gets caught in a blast, but fortunately just gets a manly scratch instead of, say, being turned to strawberry jam.
Oh, and guess how often someone shoots a gun from our hero's hand? Three times. That's three times more often than has ever happened to anyone in real life!
Turning to the stuff that's specific to the Galaxy Express 999 franchise, there's an unusual double finale. Tetsuro's story is concluded in the Time Castle and they could have rolled the credits there and had an excellent 90-minute movie. However in fact there's another forty minutes of story to go, leading to a completely different but equally satisfying emotional resolution. The mega-destruction in the first finale is more beautiful, though.
Then you have the cast. As well as Tetsuro and Maetel, there's also Sashou-san, the train attendant, who's basically a floating uniform with glowing eyes and a funny laugh. Apparently he's really popular, but you'd never know from this movie. The train staff also includes a naked crystal woman, which apart from the obvious attractions is another slant on the immortality theme.
I probably shouldn't be comparing this with a TV series I haven't seen, but what the hell. Tomoko afterwards was wondering if this had been edited together from TV series footage, although that shows how long it's been since she watched it since the film's animation is far superior. It's gorgeous in fact, plus of course they've made Tetsuro older and less potato-headed. At times I thought he resembled both Tochiro and Harlock. Meanwhile the "planet of the week" stopovers feel a bit abbreviated and might make you want to watch the full-length TV series episodes that they came from.
Overall, I liked this a lot. It's a Matsumoto film you'd recommend, which you'd also say of Waga Seishun no Arcadia, but not, say, the poor Queen Millennia movie. I'm not going near Space Battleship Yamato. There's also a follow-up Galaxy Express 999 film, Adieu, but I've been told that this one's better, if only because it doesn't rip off Darth Vader.
It's flawed, yes. It's occasionally a bit eye-rolling and it's visibly crunching the source material, trying to cram an awful lot of story into its running time, but Rintaro knows how to direct a great-looking movie and it's certainly never less than watchable. At its best, though, it's resonant and beautiful. It contains images and ideas of eerie poetry, such as the castle of frozen people. You can put a man's soul in a pendant. I also really like the design of the machine people, which is iconic, flexible and clean. It's not the best example of Matsumoto's tragedy, which for me is his greatest storytelling gift, but for me so far it contains his strongest and most interesting themes. Really nice.