Two years after his epic journey aboard the legendary space train Galaxy Express 999, Tetsuro Hoshino (voiced by Masako Nozawa) is now a child soldier fighting as part of a ragtag resistance movement against the Machine Empire whose spidery ninja-like storm troopers reduced Planet Earth to a squalid apocalyptic wasteland. Even though Tetsuro helped slay the evil Queen Promethium (Yuko Asagami), her voice haunts his nightmares and the cult she spawned continues to grow as mankind trades its humanity for immortal metal bodies. Tetsuro receives an electronic message from his beloved guardian, the beautiful, immortal time-traveller Maetel (Masako Ikeda) imploring him to rejoin her aboard 999, whereupon his friends bravely lay down their lives so he may embark on another journey to save the universe.
Reunited with 999’s lovable, pint-sized, glowing eyed Conductor (Kaneta Kimotsuki), Tetsuro also encounters the space train’s new waitress, Metalmina (Yuko Asagami), who has replaced his beloved Crystal Claire (voiced by the same actress - just to mess with poor Tetsuro’s mind!) and arouses his suspicion with her desire to acquire “the most wonderful body in the universe.” 999’s galaxy-spanning journey takes Tetsuro from planet La Matel where he befriends Meowdar (Kei Tomiyama), a blue-skinned feline alien resistance fighter who becomes the brother he never had, to the farthest reaches of space where heroic space pirate Captain Harlock (Makio Inoue), the brave crew of his all-powerful battleship Arcadia, and his stalwart ally Queen Emeraldas (Reiko Tajima) continue their battle against the Machine Empire.
While aiding the struggle, Tetsuro run across the eerie green glowing Ghost Train, a rival space locomotive whose master, the evil Black Knight Faust (Toru Emori) seems to know a lot about his past. He traumatises the boy by throwing him back in time to witness his mother’s death. Eventually, Maetel reappears, striding elegantly out of the mist like a lovely mirage. But Tetsuro is perplexed when Maetel prevents him killing the black knight and horrified to discover she has become the new queen of the Machine People…
Adieu, Galaxy Express 999 has been likened to The Empire Strikes Back (1980), being a sequel that is darker, more ambitious and superior to the original. The comparisons run even deeper given a key character is unmasked as Tetsuro’s father, although far from derivative the climactic twist packs a deeper psychological punch than managed by the Star Wars trilogy. The story is very much a psychological rite of passage, inflicting truly traumatic episodes that, coupled with Tetsuro’s near-psychosexual attachment to the various ethereal, motherly yet unattainable women in his life, mark his transition from boy to man. Running on dream logic, with an impressionistic style of storytelling rather than the rigorous step-by-step plotting of Hollywood, the film is as idea driven a piece of science fiction as anything by Stanley Kubrick or David Cronenberg, but equally an affecting slice of human drama. Co-director Rin Taro and series creator Leiji Matsumoto (for whom GE999 is the quasar around which his other classic space sagas revolve: Captain Harlock (1978), Queen of a Thousand Years (1982), Arcadia of My Youth (1982) and DNA Sights 999.9 (1997)) draw allusions to Greek mythology, Icelandic sagas and lift ideas from Sergio Leone, notably the musical watch from For a Few Dollars More (1965) whose chimes yield both an horrific revelation about one character’s grisly fate and engineer Tetsuro’s ambiguous triumph.
The film hinges on an existential dilemma. Faust confronts Tetsuro with the inarguable notion of mortality being a plague upon mankind. When you’ve grown up as a child soldier facing the horror of death on a daily basis, wouldn’t you be tempted by the offer of an immortal machine body? The question becomes, when confronted by the finite nature of existence do we chose to abandon humanity or strive to live life to its fullest? The answer is what defines Tetsuro as a man, and consigns the machine people to their doom when the heroes confront Siren the Witch - an energy devouring comet that sucks Great Andromeda’s population spectacularly into the sky.
Matsumoto and Taro imbue the early scenes set on an apocalyptic Earth with the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Matsumoto is as famed for his Second World War manga as his space operas). Children drawn by the romantic allure of the first Galaxy Express 999 (1979) were traumatised by images of suicide bombers, soldiers face down in the mud and loved ones laying down their lives for the hope Tetsuro represents. Which is not to imply this film is a downer. Osamu Shoji’s soaring score perfectly complements the tale of the human spirit, and a young boy’s imagination, rising above his squalid surroundings to reach for the stars. The animation underlines this idea with a staccato assault of light and sound, flowing seamlessly from bravura action sequences, a trippy journey through a kaleidoscope of candy colours set to some splendid electro-pop and our first glimpse of Great Andromeda and its sprawling city of glowing multicoloured hives.
Events climax with a spaghetti western shootout atop the flying carriages of 999 that pits mother against daughter, father against son before - as the closing caption informs us - “And so the boy becomes a man.” By the end of the Galaxy Express 999, viewers themselves feel as if they have undergone a similar transition from childhood to adulthood and endowed with a newfound wonder at the miracle of life.