Railroad to the Past and Future

Japanese Identity in Galaxy Express 999

Sarina Welch [About | Email]

Volume 14, Issue 3 (Discussion paper 7 in 2014). First published in ejcjs on 23 December 2014.


This paper argues that Matsumoto Leiji’s Galaxy Express 999 (1979) serves as an allegorical critique of contemporary Japan in a number of connected ways: as a criticism of mass consumerism; as a protest against the increasing involvement of the United States in identity formation for both Japan as a whole and individual Japanese; and as a resistance to the discourse of ‘victim’s history’ within Japanese contemporary history.

Keywords: Matsumoto Leiji, Miyazawa Kenji, science fiction, postwar history.

Science fiction narratives are well known for their ability to “defamiliarise and restructure our experience of our own present” (Forster, 1956 as cited in Napier, 2007 p. 102). Galaxy Express 999 takes us on a futuristic journey through the far reaches of space in order to comment on the relation between Japanese identity, the wider community and the State. Although neither a historical nor war film, Matsumoto Leiji offers a counter-narrative to mainstream perspectives of Japan’s involvement in war in Asia (Penney, 2003) as well as criticism of mass consumerism. The film is critical of both the past and present being viewed within the discourse of a ‘victim’s history,’ whereby both outright aggression and passive participation in the Asia-Pacific War in favour of viewing the self as a ‘victim’ of past events. The maternal also serves as an allegory for the roles which the State and wider community play in identity formation. Ultimately, Galaxy Express 999 presents a conflict between the organic and mechanical body that is representative of the conflict between identity and humanity in face of the state and consumerism in 20th Century Japan.

The film version of Galaxy Express 999, released August 4th of 1979, premiered during the running of its 113 episode-long animated series (September 14th 1978—March 26th 1981) and covered selected material from the anime (Toei Animation, 2014). Both works are closely based on Matsumoto Leiji’s manga of the same name, which ran from 1971 to 1981 in Shōnen King and has spawned many sequels and spinoffs in both anime and manga form. Matsumoto Leiji was already well known at the time for his work Space Battleship Yamato (Uchū Senkan Yamato; 宇宙戦艦ヤマト) also known as Star Blazers to North American audiences. Space Battleship Yamato proved to be immensely popular as, following the economic prosperity in late 1950s Japan (Gordon, 2009), it appealed greatly to both children and those adults who were the first generation to be raised on television anime (Rusca 2013, p. 110). The theatrical release, comprising re-edited footage from the TV series, was the first of its kind and continues to be a staple of the industry (ibid). Galaxy Express 999 was created in the ‘boom’ that followed the popularity of the Space Battleship Yamato film (ibid). Although the film is not overtly a war film, like many other of Matsumoto’s works it incorporates many anti-war themes, in addition arguing for the capability and responsibility of youth to change the future (Penney, 2011).

Galaxy Express 999 is set in Earth’s distant future, where immortality can be achieved by replacing one’s flesh and blood with a mechanical body and intergalactic travel is as simple as boarding a train—if one can afford a ticket. The most exclusive and far reaching ship is the ‘Galaxy Express 999,’ designed to appear as a steam train. Tetsurō, a young boy, is listening to his mother’s desire to board the Galaxy Express 999 to travel to Andromeda where mechanical bodies are given freely, when she is suddenly slain for sport by Count Mecha. In order to avenge his mother’s death, Tetsurō swears to attain a mechanical body and attempts to steal a ticket to board the Galaxy Express 999. He is almost caught by the authorities when a mysterious, beautiful woman, whom Tetsurō at first mistakes for his mother, rescues him. She introduces herself as Maetel and provides Tetsurō with a ticket on the sole condition that she may accompany him on his journey. The two visit several different worlds, all with characters who in various ways reveal the dehumanising effect of a mechanical body. Before reaching Andromeda Tetsurō defeats Count Mecha; however, after witnessing the suffering that mechanical bodies inflict during his journey, he now resolves to destroy Andromeda. After disembarking the Galaxy Express on Andromeda, he discovers that the planet’s true name is Planet Maetal and furthermore Maetal has continued an immortal existence by transferring her consciousness from one human body to the next; the latest being a clone of Tetsurō’s deceased mother. Maetal’s mother, the head of the Mechanised Empire, plans to take over the universe through the widespread use of mechanical bodies with each ‘piece’ being a part of the larger machine. Although Tetsurō feels betrayed by Maetal, this is short-lived as Maetal and her father (his consciousness located inside a pendant) initiate their plan to destroy Planet Maetal and the Mechanised Empire. Through the sacrifice of Maetal’s friends and her father, she and Tetsurō destroy the planet along with the Mechanised Empire. Together they both return to Earth, but Maetal soon departs with the Galaxy Express 999 and it is unclear whether they will ever meet again.

I felt strong hatred towards the military that had drawn my home country into such a desperate war; but I also felt that I did not have any right to complain about the regime since I myself had not done anything to prevent it from coming into being in the first place.

The above quote (from Ōoku Shōhei’s A Prisoners Record, as cited in Shimazu (2003, p. 104)) reveals a rarely expressed sentiment of the Japanese people being participants rather than victims of Japanese military aggression and the state. Right wing revisionist history of the Asia-Pacific War is often paralleled with ‘amnesia’; military aggression is either ignored or is analysed within a “victim’s history” discourse (Hicks 1997, p. viii-ix). The Japanese people were thus victims of a militarist government, the victims of atomic bombings and victims of occupation directly after the war (Napier, 2001 p. 162; Shimazu, p. 101). During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was some discussion of formally recognising past harm perpetrated throughout Asia, especially in light of large demonstrations such as Anpo and those against the Vietnam War (Hicks, p. 26). A majority of anti-war sentiment emanated from a fear of a repetition of Japan’s suffering during the Asia-Pacific War (‘victim consciousness’) rather than preventing atrocities like those committed previously in China (‘aggressor consciousness’) (Hicks, p. 27). Matsumoto Leiji (among others) has consistently provided anti-war counter-narratives in many of his works, including portraying anti-war themes through an aggressor’s consciousness (Penney, 2007) which can be clearly seen in Galaxy Express 999. Both those who chose mechanical bodies and the Japanese people during wartime were cogs in the larger war machine of the Empire; while they did not make the overt choice to fight, they also did not struggle to prevent it.

The mechanical body in Galaxy Express 999 serves as a metaphor against passive participation in such a regime that would rob one of their individuality. Many characters throughout the film warn Tetsurō of the dehumanising effect caused by the loss of the organic body. Towards the climax of the film it is revealed to Tetsurō that Maetal’s mission is to seek useful ‘parts’ of the Mechanised Empire. Maetal’s mother deems Tetsurō as an excellent part due to his youth and strong spirited nature and attempts forcibly to turn him into a machine in service to the will of the Empire. Echoes of wartime Japan and of giving one’s identity, both physically and psychologically, in service to the Emperor1 and the state (Gordon, p. 199) are clearly evident. Before Tetsurō’s body is destroyed, the extent of Maetal’s rebellion against her mother and the Empire becomes apparent. Through the willing sacrifice of Maetal’s father and many of her friends (who became mechanical parts of Planet Maetal), Maetal planned for many years to destroy the planet from within. Her determination wavers when she realises that destroying the planet will not only kill both her parents, but also this destruction is equivalent to destroying part of herself:

This planet is the other me. This planet is my other soul. We may be living in different parts of the Universe… but they’re both me! (Matsumoto, 2011)

To destroy the Mechanical Empire is in essence to destroy a part of her ‘self;’ however, this destruction is beneficial to the many who have been victimised by those with mechanical bodies. Ultimately Tetsurō aids Maetal in destroying Planet Maetal. This absolute destruction is not unlike what Japan endured to ultimately be rid of militarism and the harm that it caused. While Maetal participated in the destruction of the Mechanised Empire, she was also a product of it. Both Maetal and the Japanese people (during wartime) had identities constructed within the wider discourse of the state, and were not simply passive victims of it. In the film, Matsumoto suggests that if this identity causes harm to the wider community (i.e. humanity), then it must be destroyed.

Galaxy Express 999 uses the mechanical body as a medium to illustrate further counter-narratives against a “victim consciousness.” Not engaging with the reality of the pastis equivalent to portrayals of the Japanese ‘self’ as victims at the cost of the ‘other’ (victims of Japanese aggression). Selfish desires such as immortality and luxury are also heavily criticised for being damaging to the ‘other’ and the ‘self.’ The staggering rate of economic growth in Japan during the 1960s brought with it changes to the orientation of society, often described as the emergence of “mass society” (Iida, 2002 p. 114). Younger generations who grew up post war differentiated themselves from their elders by their consumer behaviour, defining themselves by consuming different styles and cultures (Haghirian, 2011 p. 7). In the climate of mass consumer culture, memories of the war began to fade in the wake of the Ikeda government diverting attention away from Anpo with popularist economic growth policies (Iida, pp. 115-116). Similarly, the celebration of a leisurely lifestyle away from poverty is first presented in the film as obtaining a mechanical body. Despite the technological advances that appear in the film, there are many that have missed out on such prosperity. For Tetsurō and other youths this is not seen as problematic as poverty is presented as some sort of transitional period, while adults such as Tetsurō’s mother must deal with the harsh reality of their situation while trying to adapt to a consumerist desire for immorality (Penney 2011, p. 54). Tetsurō’s mother expresses a strong desire for an immortal mechanical body as a remedy to their poverty after the loss of Tetsurō’s father—when she is killed soon after, she tells Tetsurō to escape and himself get a mechanical body. Although mechanical bodies are presented as a way to escape poverty and achieve vengeance for Tetsurō, the cost of one’s humanity for the desire of immorality is reinforced in each of the worlds that he and Maetal visit. The attainment of a mechanical body is also represented as a hollow endeavour. While visiting Pluto, Tetsurō meets a mysterious mechanical woman named Shadow, who tends the graves of the discarded organic bodies of those who chose mechanical immortality including her own human body. Not being able to overcome the loss of her organic body, she covets Tetsurō’s warm human body despite the real danger of killing him. He is saved just in time by Maetal; however, Shadow’s despair can be interpreted as a criticism against consumerism and desires defining the self.

The film also presents ways in which those with mechanical bodies can regain their humanity. Galaxy Express 999 is often thought to be inspired by the short story Night of the Milk Way Railway (銀河鉄度の夜) by Miyazawa Kenji, first published in 1934. Both Japanese titles are very similar, Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru compared with Ginga Tetsudō 999, and both involve a young man boarding a fantastical steam train that can travel through time and space. Rather than just surface similarities, both these narratives express a theme of self-sacrifice to redeem one’s ‘self’ and to reclaim an identity. Both texts differ however as Miyawaza’s themes of self-sacrifice have underpinnings of the Buddhist cycle of death and rebirth (Napier 1996, p. 152) while Matsumoto concentrates on building identity through human emotion towards others. The mechanical body versus the organic once again serves as an allegory. While several characters have mechanical bodies and mourn the loss of their human body (such as Shadow), the only characters to reclaim their humanity after becoming mechanised are Claire and Ryuzu. Reclaiming their humanity is only achieved by sacrificing their lives to save Tetsurō. Claire is a waitress working on the Galaxy Express in order to save enough money to buy back her organic body while Ryuzu is the lover of Count Mecha. Both women did not choose to have mechanical bodies of their own volition. Claire has a beautiful transparent crystal body that glows darkness, forced upon her by her vain mother. Ryuzu, in order to please the Count, replaced her organic body and has undergone many modifications since. Ryuzu, motivated by the nostalgia for her lost youth, aids Tetsurō even though she is aware that her fate is linked to Count Mecha. Alternatively Claire cares deeply for Tetsurō and self-detonates her body to directly prevent Tetsurō’s death. Through the desire or nostalgia to return to an organic body, Claire and Ryuzu place the ‘other’ before their own ‘self,’ retaining their humanity at the cost of their immorality.

All women that Tetsurō engages with in the film are interestingly presented as maternal figures. This is not unusual as many anime present young male characters desiring a mother’s warmth rather than romantic love; thus love interests are presented as “surrogate mothers” (Rusca, p. 119). Maternal figures are presented as either nurturing or detrimental to identity. Maetel, Claire and Ryuzu assist Tetsurō on his journey while respecting his freedom to decide his destiny. Other maternal figures are harmful, such as Maetal’s mother’s desire to take over the universe at the cost of Tetsurō’s selfhood and Claire’s mother forcing a mechanical body unto her. The effect of positive or negative maternal influence can be an allegory for contemporary society. Father figures are for the most part absent or later lost, not unlike the reality that families faced at the death of male soldiers and the loss of the Emperor as the divine head of state—Napier argues, in this context, that Japan was in essence demasculinised (2003, p. 171). Feminised elements, such as female characters and feminised society as a whole have the capability to undergo transformations but still retain human sentiment (Napier, 1996). The wider community (the State) and individuals, both embodied as maternal, can either be supportive or destructive to identity formation; however it is the duty of the youth to counter harmful entities to humanity.

The Galaxy Express 999 takes the viewer on a journey through nostalgia, travelling through the undesirable elements of the past (passive participation in wartime aggression) as well as present (greed for continuality and luxury) to warn the viewer of a potentially destructive future if lessons of the past are not heeded or even recognised. Identity formation and being respected as an individual are necessary for humanity; while these can be corrupted by the state and consumerism, identity is also created in this struggle. Japanese nationalist identity through the post-war years may be seen as the transformation from a mechanical body back to the organic.


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[1] This is seen in the manifestation of the political ideology of kokutai, or ‘body politic.’ One such famous manifesto of kokutai was by the Ministry of Education in 1937 which stated that one should accept the Emperor’s will as one’s own and that loyalty to the Emperor and military spirit were the core of Japan’s national values (Gordon, p. 199).

About the Author

Sarina Welch has recently finished a Bachelor of Languages and Linguistics from Griffith University in Australia, majoring in Japanese language and culture as well as completing an extended major in Linguistics. During her program she spent one year on exchange at the University of Victoria, where she was delightfully able to study various aspects of Japanese pop-culture. She is interested in anime and manga from the 1970s within a historical discourse, especially the works of Matsumoto Reiji. Although she intends to undertake Honours in Linguistics, she wishes to continue academic study of Japanese pop-culture.

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