The train inhabited by sleeping people puts together all the fragments of dreams, makes a single film of them—the ultimate film. The tickets from the automatic dispenser grant admission to the show. - Chris Marker
On February 13th, 2023, Leiji Matsumoto passed away. It is nigh impossible to encapsulate his reach in a few words, and others have chronicled his works, so I will focus on the personal. My first encounter with his work came in the form of Fred Schodt’s 1983 tome, Manga! Manga! The World of Japanese Comics, which I purchased from the New York Kinokuniya back in the days when they were in Rockefeller Center (that location opened in 1981, and it certainly was a portentous year, as Urusei Yatsura, Gundam, and Adieu Galaxy Express 999 hit theaters and television. Harbingers of the anime invasion to come). An excerpt from The Cockpit introduced me to a visual language in comics that I had not encountered at that point. Cherubic looking characters engaged in the gruesome dealings of WWII in the Pacific theater. Sex, death, geopolitics and aviation machinery in one little story.
My next encounter with Matsumoto came as a two pronged attack launched by Viz Media. The Galaxy Express 999 manga was running in Animerica magazine at roughly the same time the anime feature film was being shown on the Sci-Fi Channel. The manga was simple and episodic enough that I felt comfortable jumping in mid-way through the story: two travelers, the cherubic and potato-like Tetsuro and the elongated beauty Maetel, across the universe come across different planets, each indicative of a human foible or fear, whether it's the changing environment or loss of the inner spark of humanity. When I saw the planet of machine people who ate ramen made of oil and wires, I was immediately captivated by the playful whimsy of the comic. It reminded me of shows like Star Trek and Twilight Zone, episodic works of sci-fi shaped by the trauma of war that sought to explore the human condition alongside the stars. Galaxy Express 999 showed that you could travel to the stars on nothing but metaphors.
The 1979 Galaxy Express 999 movie, directed by Rintaro, was the other side of the coin, something more livid, lurid, and exciting. While flipping through channels one idle afternoon I came across the Sci-Fi Channel’s airing of the film on their Saturday Anime block. The squarish prison of the CRT isn’t the ideal way to experience the film, but its grandeur still managed to show through. The scene I happened upon was one of the film’s multiple climaxes: young Tetsuro encroaches on the Time Castle of Count Mecha, the mechanical man that murdered Tetsuro’s mother many years ago. Running through a gothic castle, straight out of a Hammer Horror film but with sci-fi adornments (the bats and suits of armor are now mechanical), Tetsuro comes across his dead mother, stripped bare, and mounted on a wall, Matsumoto having taken the stakes in Bambi and upping the ante. Incensed, Tetsuro enacts his revenge against Count Mecha in a violent shootout, ending with Count Mecha’s lover, Ryuzu, stripping off her clothes to reveal how Count Mecha had turned her flesh into metal (a lot of women in Tetsuro’s life die, have their clothes stripped, or both), and then initiating the castle’s self-destruct sequence. There is a poetic context about Tetsuro wanting a mechanical body of his own, but hardening his own heart and losing innocence along the way to enact his revenge, but those subtleties were lost on me in the excitement and I simply needed to know more from there.
I gravitated to the individual elements that made up the Galaxy Express 999 film. Co-writer Kon Ichikawa, had also directed the tragically poetic The Burmese Harp in 1956, and the animation was directed by Rintaro, who lent his talent to anime at its inception on TV with Astro Boy. Years later the movie’s rousing, poppy theme by Godiego would become a favorite of mine at karaoke. Yet Leiji Matsumoto, the one who came up with it all, was elusive. Keep in mind, in a Francophone country I probably would have had an easier time tracking down his works, but in the United States during the late 90s there was a minimal amount of his animated work available on home video and virtually none of his comics on shelves. But the early 2000s brought two advents: Daft Punk and BitTorrent.
Daft Punk’s Discovery was the byproduct of two Gen X Frenchmen who had grown up with the exploits of Matsumoto’s Harlock on television, so the album was accompanied by an animated film, Interstella 5555, which was influenced by Matsumoto’s art style and had Matsumoto as Supervising Director and Visual Director. Now a style and sound from the 70s was being broadcast on Toonami and captivating minds. A few years later, I discovered that conventions weren’t the only place I could go to to find anime that wasn’t available in your normal video stores as I explored the world of anime fan-subs and file sharing. It was there that I was reunited with Galaxy Express in its TV anime form (which had no official release in the US at the time). Sure, it didn’t have the visual grandeur of the film, but it was still exciting to see Maetel and Tetsuro again, and in the more drawn out TV format, their time together wasn’t as rushed as it was in the film. Once again I was on a never ending journey to the stars.
Now we’re lucky enough that we don’t have to turn the TV on at random hours or use tape trading to find Matsumoto’s work, with Blu-Rays of Galaxy Express 999 and Captain Harlock films readily available (please buy the Discotek releases of the Galaxy Express movies and TV show, they're great) and a little more of his manga being officially translated into English. The context of Matsumoto’s work may be difficult for some to grasp and his style is alien to your modern day American anime fans. If you want a little help understanding Matsumoto’s work, the world it emerged from, the themes and concerns in his stories, and the imagery that he utilized, watch the Chris Marker film Sans Soleil. A documentary/mood piece shot in Japan and Africa during the late 70s/early 80s, Sans Soleil was set during a shifting time just before the Bubble Era, when technology was expanding across Japan at an explosive rate, the unrest of the student protest movement subsided but still lingered in the air, and the specters of WWII were still looming, but being crowded out by a changing world. I don’t think Marker was very familiar with Galaxy Express 999, but at multiple points of the film we see shots of the anime interspersed throughout the film with footage of sleepy train passengers and daily life in Tokyo as the narrator waxes on “the impermanence of things”. Galaxy Express 999 is nothing but the impermanence of things. An antiquated steam engine journeying into the stars, loss of innocence, loss of loved ones. The world lost Leiji Matsumoto, but it’s loss that makes what he gave us all the more precious.
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