Galaxy Express Anime Review
Ginga Tetsudou Surii Nain
Galaxy Railway 999
US Release By
Space Opera Adventure
94 minutes (orig. 120 minutes)
1984 (orig. 1979-08-04)
The fabled space train Galaxy Express 999 is a curious amalgamation of futuristic technology and the aesthetics and feeling of yesteryear. A mysterious woman named Maetel provides the orphaned Joey Hannakannabobbakananna Smith (aka Tetsuro Hoshino) the opportunity to board the Galaxy Express and avenge his mother's death by obtaining a machine body. While meeting all sorts of characters on the subsequent (and notably cathartic) journey, Joey not only matures; he discovers that the casualty of having his original desires fulfilled may be his very humanity.
Reviewer's Note: This review is for Galaxy Express, which was the original dubbed version of Galaxy Express 999 released by Children's Treasures in 1984. This was also shown on HBO very briefly in the early/mid-eighties as "The Adventures of Joey Hannakannabobbakannanna Smith." Since this differs from the dubbed Signature Edition of GE 999, I thought a comparative and informational review of a drastically different version of the movie would be interesting.
Galaxy Express (yes, no 999) is the earliest English screen incarnation of Leiji Matsumoto's long-running and unparalleled space opera classic. Released in 1984 on Children's Treasures, I assume the intent was the same as a lot of the domestic Celebrity for Kids incarnations (or butcheries, depending on your view) of various Anime -- to repackage, dub, and reformat the movies in a suitable format for younger kids. Initially, I thought that this would be a dumbed-down and utterly distorted version of the penultimate animated space opera. Fortunately, it's not; however, it's undeniable that Galaxy Express perverts some of Matsumoto's original ideas -- I seriously doubt that in-an-attempt-to-be-cool lingo like "Holy Mooncow!" or "cosmo gun" had any place in Matsumoto's visions of grandeur. And don't even get me started on the perverse butchery of the character names.
Structurally, the most notable difference about Galaxy Express is the detached environment the movie is meant to exist in. Note that at the time this English version was being worked on, Adieu Galaxy Express 999 hadn't even been released in Japan yet! As such, Galaxy Express is meant to stand alone; most of the loose ends that served as the foundation for sequel material in the original have been tied, rather sadly in some points with reserved editing. In addition, Galaxy Express was not intended to perpetuate any "Matsumotoisms" -- there is some sense of familiarity and conventionality with characters such as Capt. Warlock (Harlock) and Emeralda (Emeraldas), but it's clear that there is no intent to link them to other Anime or storylines. Now, what I've just said may be positive or negative, depending on the viewer. If you haven't seen or read any Matsumoto before and have no grasp of some of the character backgrounds, this might be a good choice, since you can watch Galaxy Express as a complete entity. Personally, I believe a lot of the richness associated with Matsumoto-universe intertwining is lost in this movie.
The plot and premise of the movie are essentially the same as the original, so there's no need on my behalf to elaborate any further. The dialogue has been tweaked a little bit to make it simpler overall (again, probably for the kids) and to eliminate connections to the larger Matsumoto universe, but surprisingly, this doesn't alter the story significantly. None of the editing done in the movie seems to be based on censorship, as all of the major scenes of death and tragedy are still present and their contribution to the movie is not minimized within the film. That's all probably due to the lack of hypersensitivity associated with the '90s. If you have seen the Sci-Fi channel edit of the Signature Edition, that contains quite a lot more content editing than Galaxy Express.
Since just about everything else is the same as in the original GE 999, the most notable superficial difference to Galaxy Express is the character names, the dubbing and vocal track, and the new songs. Most of these are qualities are sub-par compared to the original or the dubbed Signature Edition.
The character names are really perverse butcheries; I gather that someone thought Joey Hannakannabobbakananna Smith would be a decidedly fun name more preferable to kids than a Japanese name like Tetsuro Hoshino. However, to me, it just sounds stupid. Other atrocities include Sundown McMoon (Tochiro) and Capt. Warlock (Harlock), whose voice in GE is a very intentional John Wayne mimic. Antares is rechristened as Olaf in GE and receives an appropriate burly Swedish voice, but this actually works pretty well. Most of the other names are either untouched or are easily recognizable shortenings of their original versions.
The biggest aesthetic difference is the dubbing, which I assume is the quality that would prompt viewing. Even though Galaxy Express has some pretty hefty vocal talent (including B.J. Ward as Emeralda and Fay McKay), the dubbing is one of the most abysmal aspects of the movie. Everyone's evaluation of character voices will be subjective, but there were some additional points that really irked me. First of all, Galaxy Express has absolutely NO narration or subtitled introduction. None at all. In fact, the opening scene is absolutely silent until the locomotive sounds and music begins. Thus, there is no background on GE 999 given, which might have been a rather nice inclusion, especially considering this was aimed at kids. My other gripe is the total lack of vocal sound effects on the vocal track -- there is no sneezing, coughing, blowing, spitting, etc. at all. This created several awkward, soundless pauses during the film that made it seem rather unrealistic.
The dubbing itself was heavily mixed, but the majority of it was silly, contrived, and quite honestly, terrible. Some of the characters were tagged with geographically stereotyped voices which undermined the seriousness of the story -- Olaf has a Swedish accent, and the commander of Promethea's royal guard has a thick Russian one. In addition to Warlock's John Waynesque mockery, Sundown McMoon gets a haggard Western-sounded voice, almost like a burnt-out cowboy. Although I suppose it's suitable considering his look and the context of the dub, I'm definitely biased and prefer the intelligent engineer's wit of Tochiro. As stated before, the other characters voices vary; they are generally good, but aren't up to par with the dubbing of the Signature Edition. The worst voices are definitely those of Promethea (who sounds like someone's grandmother, rather than the ruler of the mechanized empire) and Sundown's mother (it's blatantly obvious that it's someone attempting to mimic an old woman's voice). In fact, I'm pretty positive that both voices were done by the same actor. The other main voices are generally okay; Joey sounds a little young but his voice isn't too out of place. Maetel's voice is akin to that of a wizened middle-aged woman, which is probably a good match character-wise, but it comes off as a little too old and bland. Emeralda's voice seems a little too soft-edged to be that of a space pirate, but I think she and Count Mecha have the best acting out of the lot (albeit Count Mecha has a VERY stereotypical '80s cartoon villain quality to his voice). The voicing of minor characters all seemed to be well done, although a couple of the machine people had extremely annoying, nasal voices. Despite any of the positive qualities present in the dubbing, everything as a whole seemed old, in especially in conjunction with the animation (which was not restored as per the Signature Editions).
The writing was very good overall, despite having a few overly-cheesy futuristic phrases put in. The dialogue maintained the same feel and provided the same moods the original did; in fact, a substantial portion of the lines were exactly the same as in the newer dub. The major change seems to be the structuring of dialogue to fit the self-contained plot and a breakdown of complex dialogue into more simplistic (but not dumbed down) fare. Again, I assume this is done for the intended younger audience.
The other major audial difference is the musical score, which I'm a bit split on. On the plus side, all of the original orchestrated background themes are still present, but the Godiego songs were removed. There is no substitute for the wonderfully catchy Galaxy Express 999 theme as a sendoff; in Galaxy Express, the movie just ends without closing credits. The English replacement songs for "Taking Off" and Ryuzu's song are actually quite good and fit the mood of the Anime quite well as substitutions.
I also just want to briefly outline the editing nuances in this version, which makes the film differ quite a bit from the original. There is no added footage or lengthy cuts, so it's really not any better or worse than the original. It's just a different version with a changed ending that was not intended for a sequel. If you haven't seen Galaxy Express 999 at all in any form, you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph, since it's a bit of a spoiler. The major editorial difference is the way in which Promethea dies in the film. In Galaxy Express, she is destroyed simultaneously with the planet Maetel; the entire scene of Claire sacrificing herself to save Tetsuro has been edited out. The other major difference is the ending, which is quite depressing and does not set itself up for a sequel. I won't explicitly quote the dialogue, but it is clear that Joey will never see Maetel again. The consequences and finalization of Joey's journey end, ironically, sort of quasi-theatrically, with the movie abruptly ending.
Overall, Galaxy Express is certainly not for all people, and it's certainly not for all the people who liked the original or the newer dubs. It does have glaringly apparent shortcomings compared to other versions of Matsumoto's masterpiece, but I found it quite interesting to see the nuances and differences associated with this older English version. But it's also got an apparent campy '80s charm to it, what with futuristic looking fonts for the credits and slightly cheesy voice acting. Please note that when I address the negative aspects of this movie, it is in comparison to the other versions of Galaxy Express 999. I enjoy Galaxy Express, and I enjoy it more than most other Anime, but I enjoy Galaxy Express 999 even more.
My recommendation on this one is heavily mixed depending on the audience. I would definitely recommend this for younger kids as an alternative to the full-blown Galaxy Express 999, as it's made with entertainment value in mind and simplifies the moral complexities of the original. In addition, the story is self-encapsulated pretty well; there's not too much of a need to have background info or see the sequels. I would also recommend this to people who have already seen Galaxy Express 999 and are interested enough in minor nuances, detail changes, and a different voice cast to want to see this. However, I would unabashedly recommend that Anime novices try to see Galaxy Express 999/Adieu Galaxy Express 999 (dubbed or subtitled) before this, as you're apt to be left with a better first impression of those.
Just a quick note about availability: This video (it only exists commercially on VHS) has been out of print for over a decade, so it's most likely you'll find it in online auctions or someplace that sells used videos. I've also seen video stores that still rent this out, but it's usually in the children's animation section, not in the Anime section. This is also the same version that ran on HBO, so you might happen to stumble across a copy recorded off of TV.
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Notes and Trivia
As noted in the review, this pertains to a very old, edited and dubbed version of Galaxy Express 999, known as just Galaxy Express.
Although other stories from Matsumoto's world have seen more recent release on DVD, the original Galaxy Express 999 is, as of this writing, only available on VHS, and is out of print as well.
US DVD Review
Appropriate for younger viewers with some parental guidance.
Violence: 2 - Not terribly violent, but some pretty tragic human and robot deaths.
Nudity: 2 - Everything is strategically covered by hair, blood, or robotic parts.
Sex/Mature Themes: 1 - Some implied romance and a big smooch at the end.
Language: 1 - Nothing of real note.
Once available in the US from Children's Treasures on dubbed VHS, now long out of print. Was also shown on HBO at one point. A dubbed or subtitled VHS version of the unedited Galaxy Express 999 ("Signature Edition") was available in the late '90s from VIZ, although that too is out of print. (The edited edition reviewed here can be purchased used through Amazon, but it's pricey: Galaxy Express ; the uncut version is more reasonable: Galaxy Express 999 - Signature Edition (English Subtitles), Galaxy Express 999 - Signature Edition (English Dubbed).)