Galaxy Express 999 is a Japanese manga series written and illustrated by Leiji Matsumoto, later adapted into a number of anime films and television series. It is set in a spacefaring, high-tech future in which humans have learned how to transfer their minds and emotions with perfect fidelity into mechanical bodies, thus achieving practical immortality.
The manga won the Shogakukan Manga Award for shōnen in 1978. The anime series won the Animage Anime Grand Prix prize in 1981.
Matsumoto was inspired to create Galaxy Express 999 by the idea of a steam train running through the stars in the novel Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa.
Anime and manga
An impoverished ten-year-old named Tetsuro Hoshino desperately wants an indestructible machine body, giving him the ability to live forever and have the freedom that the unmechanized don’t have. While machine bodies are impossibly expensive, they are supposedly given away for free in the Andromeda Galaxy, the end of the line for the Galaxy Express 999, a space train that only comes to Earth once a year.
The series begins with Tetsuro and his mother making their way to Megalopolis where they hope to get jobs to pay for passes for the 999. Along the way, however, Count Mecha and a gang of “human hunters” kill Tetsuro’s mother. Before she dies, she tells him to continue the journey they started, and to get a machine body to live the eternal life she couldn’t. Tetsuro tries to forge on toward the city alone, but is quickly overcome by the brutal cold and wind. As he succumbs, he cries out an apology to his mother for failing to fulfill her wish, and hopes that in his next life he will be born as a robot to begin with.
Tetsuro is surprised to awaken by the fireplace in the home of a beautiful woman, Maetel, who is the spitting image of his dead mother. Maetel tells him she had heard the entire incident with a long-range directional microphone she had been idly scanning around the area with. Maetel offers him an unlimited use pass for the 999 if he will be her traveling companion, to which Tetsuro agrees. She provides him with a gun and directs him to the Count’s residence, telling him that the Count and his henchmen will be too distracted with their revelries to defend themselves against a surprise attack. Tetsuro bursts in on them in their meeting hall and cuts them down with a spray of gunfire. With the Earth police in hot pursuit, Tetsuro and Maetel flee the planet aboard the 999.
Along the way, Tetsuro has many adventures on many different and exotic planets and meets many kinds of people, both human and alien, living and machine. Increasingly, Tetsuro realizes that a machine body won’t fix all of his problems. In fact, most of the machine people he meets regret the decision to give up their humanity.
Eventually, Tetsuro and Maetel reach the Planet Prometheum, the final stop for the 999. He is shocked by the cruelty and indolence of the machine people there, and witnesses a mechanized human committing suicide, an event to which the others react with scoffs and derision. He asks the dying man why he wished to end his life, and is told that eternal life on Prometheum is utterly empty of joy or purpose. When Tetsuro mentions the name of his traveling companion, the man is horrified and tells him that Maetel is in fact the daughter of Queen Prometheum, the supreme ruler of the Machine Empire, and that she is thoroughly untrustworthy. Testuro is outraged at having been kept in the dark and rushes off to confront Maetel. Maetel is at a loss for words, but a government spokeswoman inserts herself into their conversation and begins giving answers on Maetel’s behalf. Tetsuro is not impressed and he storms off in a blind fury.
Tetsuro doesn’t understand why he has been betrayed by Maetel, but Maetel has plans of her own, and seeks to destroy the mechanized civilization. With the help of her father, Dr. Ban (only named in the film), whose consciousness resides in a pendant she wears around her neck, Maetel destroys her mother and the planet. Afterwards, Maetel and Tetsuro return to the penultimate station on the Planet of Bats where Tetsuro tells Maetel his intention to return to Earth and lead it toward a new future.
Maetel, proud of Tetsuro for his decision to reject mechanization, tells him she has something to take care of and that he should board first. However, Tetsuro finds a letter from Maetel telling him that it was time for them to part ways. Maetel had secretly boarded the 777 (three-seven), a nearby train, with the intention of “leading another boy to his future”. However, it is unclear as to whether or not this means that the Mechanization Empire still exists elsewhere, or if Maetel will lead the boy to some other “future”. The series ends as the trains both depart the Planet of Bats.
New manga series and Eternal Fantasy
In 1996, Matsumoto began a new GE999 series, set a year after the original, in which the Earth is destroyed and Tetsuro sets out to discover the source of the “darkness” that threatens all life in the universe.
The film Galaxy Express 999: Eternal Fantasy was released in 1998. This film takes place one year after the events of the Galaxy Express 999 TV series and is the third film in the series, where Maetel and Tetsuro reunite to save the universe again from another evil. It also serves as a link between this film and The Galaxy Railways.
The Alfee performed the theme song “Brave Love: Galaxy Express 999 / Beyond the Win”.
Also, Space Battleship Yamato, from the Japanese show of the same name and the English version Star Blazers, which are both Matsumoto creations, makes a cameo appearance
The manga has been partially published in English by Viz.