One of the most haunting and beautiful anime series of the '80s has never been released on Blu-ray for Western viewers — that is, until now. Galaxy Express 999, Leiji Matsumoto's epic space opera is getting an officially licensed Blu-ray release by way of Discotek Media, at last bringing the manga to a wider audience so everyone can enjoy it, beyond the leagues of those who have happened upon the gem via streaming platforms like Crunchyroll.
Combining the yearning of space exploration with a dystopian future and surreal landscapes, it weaves a believable yet fantastical tale that spans galaxies and planets filled with the stuff of dreams. The story follows a young boy named Tetsuo who yearns for the day when he can replace his body with a mechanical one, which most of affluent society has already done. They're ridiculously expensive, so most humans who haven't been able to afford one live in slums beneath Megalopolis, the city where the newly-minted androids live.
But there's one supposed way to get a machine body for free, and that's by riding on the Galaxy Express 999, which is a train that flies through space. It doesn't need rails, it can fly. Duh. It comes to Earth only once a year, and if you ride it all the way to the end of the line, you can reach the Andromeda galaxy. There, mechanical bodies are supposedly given away for free, but the details on all that are murky. Tetsuro and his mother want to travel on the 999 and try to pay for their own ticket aboard, but crisis befalls them, leaving Tetsuro alone save for a mysterious blonde woman named Maetel, who offers a pass for him to ride on the Galaxy Express.
Maetel's reasoning behind her good deed isn't clear, but Tetsuro joins her on a quest throughout the stars to reach Andromeda, and his coveted metal body. The series comprises their various adventures on the planets they travel to while on the railway, with each episode a new chance to tell a far-out vignette about each planet and the way of life people aspire to there. Slowly, Tetsuro begins to question whether eternal life and a machine body is something he really wants after all, but watching him slowly arrive at this conclusion is a beautiful and engaging process.
Most anime series have a similar episodic format, but Galaxy Express 999 pulls off some of the most intriguing storytelling in the genre, especially with its approaches to hard sci-fi with dashes of surrealism and extremism. You never know what you're going to see, and that's the beauty of it all. Some episodes may leave you feeling hopeful and ecstatic about Tetsuro's future, and others will leave you questioning whether anyone in the human race has any compassion, or if the word has suddenly lost its meaning over time.
Failing the writing, characters, and concept, the anime itself is slightly disturbing in its own unique way, even if it's all unintentional. The coldness of space, the unfamiliar races and people you meet along the way, everything about it makes for a difficult but entrancing watch.
For all of these reasons, it's not hard to understand why it's an enduring sci-fi classic that fans still feel is worth experiencing, whether you're new to anime or an old pro. Plus, if you know Leiji Matsumoto, you know why it's such a big deal and that you can't miss out on it.
With that said, when Galaxy Express 999 is finally widely available on Blu-ray for Western audiences who have deserved said release for a very, very long time, don't sleep on it. The saga of Tetsuro and Maetel is one that has to be seen to be believed, and you may well decide you'll want to come back for the ride, again and again.