What Leiji Matsumoto did right… or a critical view of Galaxy Express 999

As a young child I would often run to the television, beating my brothers and their friends by bounds to catch the animated masterpieces by Leiji Matsumoto. It mattered little we were watching them a decade after their creation or that the snippets of Matsumoto animation we could find were housed on now-extinct VHS tapes. What mattered was the fact Matsumoto did not fail to delight- the child and the adult. My mother and father would often wander into the living room, watching and laughing at the same animation that kept their children entertained. I am not a huge fan of anime; I have my favorites and will indulge in the new once in a while. Through it all I have always appreciated the master storyteller Leiji Matsumoto.


So what did Matsumoto do right? Why, upon much thought, do I still find his stories to be some of the best in Japanese Animation? Simply, Matsumoto recognized the same thing that J.K. Rowling, Frank Baum, C.S. Lewis realized; sometimes we need a simplistic idea to get where we need to go; to turn the extraordinary into the story that tells us just how ordinary we really are. In Oz we were following a Kansas farm girl, at Hogwarts we trailed our British school boy, in Narnia we saw siblings sent from war to a magical land. How could the space operas of Matsumoto be ordinary? Because they take on moral tales- tales that apply to the populous, episode by episode, in an extraordinary setting; much like Baum, Lewis, and Rowling.

In Galaxy Express 999 (pronounced three nine) we watched a boy with a dream give his trust to a woman and the journey she offered him. Tetsuro Hoshino is the main character of Galaxy Express. He is a boy with a goal; to possess a mechanized body that allows him to live forever. A mechanized body is extremely expensive and only found in the Andromeda Galaxy. Andromeda is reached by the space train Galaxy Express 999, a train that only stops at earth once a year.

Tetsuro and his mother attempt to earn the money needed to ride the Galaxy Express; however Tetsuro’s mother is killed before they can raise enough money for the fare. Count Mecha, the murderer of his mother, becomes the epitome of evil in Tetsuro’s mind.  With her dying words she urges Tetsuro to continue the journey, giving him more than enough purpose.


Soon Tetsuro meets up with a woman named Maetel, a mysterious woman that is identical to Tetsuro’s dead mother. Maetel offers Tetsuro a deal, if he will become her traveling companion he can have unlimited travel on Galaxy Express. Fed by the anger at his mother’s death Tetsuro agrees and starts his voyage to purchase a mechanized body.

Each episode of Galaxy Express finds Maetel and Tetsuro journeying along the Galaxy Express, encountering morally ambiguous or stalwart stoic idealism along the way. Each episode is a story that communicates Tetsuro’s gradual understanding. A boy. A boy whose mother died he sets out believing a mechanized boy will bring immortality and justice. As he travels Tetsuro begins to understand the consequences of immortality. In fact, Tetsuro soon realizes that life and immortality are mutually exclusive; you cannot have both at the same time. Self realization through experience is a central theme to this series. A central theme that is imagined well episode by episode.

Growing up is hard to do. A difficult journey in and of itself. Imagine the journey from adolescent to adult onboard a space train on its way to a deceptively helpful galaxy called Andromeda. If Tetsuro did not begin to understand his appreciation for his mortality on this journey this would have been a waste of a space opera. What made it great was the fact that as we traveled we grew with the character. Where outrage at his mother’s death made us realize his need for revenge, his encounters on his journey made us realize that one boy’s emotional vendetta may not be the best reason for a journey towards mechanization.


Maetel is a character that is hard to get over. A mystery of motivation, a possible paragon of virtue. How much, as we grow up, can we trust those around us?  Is a visage of your mother enough to trust another human being? And yet, how can a child understand where their trust should truly lie? Questions such as these build the character of Maetel up to the best possible hero, or the best possible villain. Uncertainty and youthful trust drive Maetel into the one that the entire story depends on. Much like real adolescence, when trust in friends and family can lead a young person astray. Maetel, in the end, does what is best. I will not spoil it here, but it is amazing character depth indeed.

Modern Anime fans may groan at the prospect of a 1970s Matsumoto classic. I urge all anime fans out there to watch the master, the man that in my opinion built my opinion of anime. After all- I have never since beaten my brothers to anything- or their friends. It was Matsumoto first. And always.

2 thoughts on “What Leiji Matsumoto did right… or a critical view of Galaxy Express 999

  1. Ah it’s a shame you left out Gun frontier, a really excellent work from him too, revolving as you said, around a simplistic premise, but creating really interesting situations by thinking outside the box in many instances. Guns Frontier is actually what introduced me to his works lol, It’s saddening the anime has a cliffhanger ending.

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