Galaxy Express 999: Have Gun–Will Travel

hisuiconI have always heard of  Galaxy Express 999 as one of those shows that people talk about but not many people have seen unless they are devoted to the classics.  And among those fans people who have actually seen the TV series as opposed to the movies is fewer still. But I am surprised that no one who has ever watched the TV series has ever mentioned one thing that shocked me greatly. Almost everyone in Galaxy Express is amazingly amoral. Even Tetsuro and Maetel seem to often seem to plunge right into full on amorality.

hisuiconLeiji Matsumoto is no stranger to having characters with a gray morality. Captain Harlock is a space pirate who will break the law whenever he sees fit. He will steal and kill without remorse if he needs to. But you always get the sense that Harlock has a strong moral code that we will not break. His moral compass is quickly obvious to the viewer. In 20 episodes I cannot make heads or tails of any sort of moral compass within Tetsuro and Maetel.

hisuiconGalaxy Express 999 is a space fantasy but at its heart it is a western mixed with a Bildungsroman road movie. Instead of going from town to town on the railroad they travel on the Galaxy Express from planet to planet meeting strange new people and civilizations. Just like in a classic western you get the feeling that there are almost no laws and being fast on the draw is  the only way to get justice. I have joked that people in Galaxy Express seem to murder everyone they meet until the finally run into someone who can solve their problems. It just so happens that a laser blast to the head solves most people’s problems permanently.

hisuiconIn these strange worlds were the inhabitants often live by bizarre, selfish, or nonexistent moral codes so you expect the protagonists to stand apart from those they meet. While Tetsuro and Maetel are often on a higher moral ground than most of the people they meet there is not much that separates them. Tetsuro often solves his problems by shooting first and asking questions later and has no compulsion against taking revenge on people who have crossed him. Matel knowingly  wipes out the population of two high populated planets in episode 14.They meet several mass murderers who they let go simply because they realize that Tetsuro has a noble heart. In fact having a noble heart seems to excuse any crime you commit in the Galaxy Express universe.

hisuiconI hope that this post does not turn anyone off from sampling Galaxy Express 999. These moral ambiguities in each episode lend themselves to some powerful and unique storytelling. By having the main characters be so morally neutral Leiji Matsumoto does not come off as preachy. The reader is forced to determine their feelings on each episode without the author telling you who is right and wrong. Wonderful shows like Kino’s Journey and Unprecedented Game have been clearly influenced by Galaxy Express 999. I am just hoping to start some discussion and interest in a show that takes a unique approach to the morality play.

8 thoughts on “Galaxy Express 999: Have Gun–Will Travel

  1. Wimtermuted says:

    Really glad you noticed the ambiguity in this series that helps elevate it beyond most shows that even attempt this.Such complex ideas mixed into what can easily be seen as a protracted fable regarding life, and the expected sins borne out of our basic incompleteness.It seems to be less about any kind of literal murder, and more about the inevitable pain we inflict just by being until we find the individual answers we need to move forward. It embraces the human as flawed animal, and also reminds (child viewers at the time) that despite the pain we case to keep moving forward, and to maintain a noble heart.(especially toward those who have helped us along the way)

  2. Hugo Z. Hackenbush says:

    Ah, a serious 999 discussion. I’ve been waiting for someone to pick my brain.
    I have had the pleasure that not many have had of viewing all 113 episodes. Many of them such as my favorite 101 “Planet of Eternal Dream Pursuit” have been a major influence on my life in making me appreciate the freedoms in this life that aren’t available to some of Maetel and Tetsuro’s stops along the line.

    Anyway, enough about me I would like to go into a deep analysis of your thoughts on the show.
    I admire your dedication to the series and for you looking at it’s inner workings.

    For example, I understand why you think why the show is loaded with characters that are very amoral. I direct your attention to when you talk about Tetsuro and Maetel’s seemingly undecipherable moral compass, and I agree at first it is extremely hard to understand what they are thinking at times in several episodes.

    Take for instance episode 14 that you mentioned, Maetel and Tetsuro become victims in a body stealing plot by the depressed mechanical being, Lahla, which results in Maetel destroying the Double Planets. It also didn’t help when all the cyborgs in that bar wanted to kill Maetel, stuff her, and hang her on their wall like Tetsuro’s mother in the 1st episode. Still both worlds collide via sabotage and Tetsuro overlooks the fact that Maetel did this because of something she mentioned in an earlier episode.

    In episode 6, when the train is about to depart the Comet Library, Tetsuro and Maetel return to the 999 and discover there are a mother and her son dressed as our protagonists so they may find better living arrangements. The Conductor sees the fakers are tossed off the train but there is a moment when Tetsuro asks Maetel if they should ask the Conductor to make an exception for this time. Maetel explains that the Comet Library is at the edge of the solar system and beyond that point is the “Lawless Zone” of space where anything goes. A similar thing was said in episode 4, when the Great Thief Antares said “Shoot first, ask questions later!” I assume this is why at some points in the series Tetsuro and Maetel are willing to overlook any lapses of each other’s good judgment.

    You also mention mass murderers changing their minds about killing Tetsuro because of his noble heart, I assume you mean Ryuzu from episodes 7 and 8 “The Graveyard at Gravity’s Bottom Pts. 1 and 2” (I assume this because of your post on the 21st of September you said you have only seen 20 episodes and Ryuzu is the first mass murderer who comes to mind in the first 20 episodes) and how she has killed everyone on the 333 with her time manipulation and threatens to kill Maetel if Tetsuro doens’t stay and live with her. Tetsuro asks Maetel for help but she says to go with Ryuzu. Then Tetsuro is even offered a mechanical body if he is well behaved and will stay with Ryuzu. Tetsuro obviously isn’t going to fulfill his mother’s dying wishes of living a long, enjoyable life in a house at Gravity’s Bottom for all eternity so he refuses to do as Ryuzu says.

    Like you said, Ryuzu whom a mass murder does a complete turn-a-round and let’s Tetsuro go for his desire of wanting to live the way he wants because she sees qualities in him that she wished she had in the past. I doubt that would actually happen with a mass murderer in real life unless they actually had a tragic past like Ryuzu’s past and felt a strong connection in Tetsuro’s resolve that would link them together, thus sparking a life changing moment.

    I hope I didn’t bore you but you did say you desired some discussion and here it is. Thanks for your time.


    Hugo Z. Hackenbush AKA Groucho Marx

    Screencaps from top to bottom are from episodes 20, 5, and 2. Not including the Harlock cover art between Maetel screen cap and Tetsuro’s 1st screen cap.

    believe Tetsuro lets people slide from time to time

  3. reversethieves says:

    Good points all around. Just wanted to make a few comment as well.

    I suppose in episode 14 the twin planets are supposed to be an allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah but I find it hard to believe there there was not a single good person on either planet. Maetel basically did some biblical level throwing out the baby with the bath water vengeance in that one. Tetsuro has also been seen to do some epic hand waving to dismiss oddities in Maetel’s behavior because of his attraction/affection for her.

    As for the Comet Library it highlights Maetel’s seemingly random choices as to when to subvert the rules of the Galaxy Express. She will not help the mother and child in that case but she helps the rebels who hijack the train in episode 22 with free passes. Once again she deems the rebels to have noble hearts so they get a free pass but the mother and child do not so they are punished. But both snuck onto the train and were pretty criminal about it.

    Shadow in episode 5 has also clearly murdered countless people. She was the other mass murderer they let go without as much as a slap on the wrist.

    Well Ryuzu seemed to kill anyone who who annoyed her. She hardly seemed to have a noble heart to me. But for some reason they seemed to deem her OK in the end.

    But each episode of Galaxy Express 999 could be it’s own lesson and discussion about ethics, philosophy, and morality. It is a great show for people who complain everything today is flash and fetishes. (Although they do play up the fetish angel of Maetel quite often in reflection.)

    – Hisui

    • Hugo Z. Hackenbush says:

      I totally forgot to ask you this the other day.

      How do you feel about the 999 films getting licensed by Discotek Media and a US release?

      I hope they sell enough copies of the movies so they’ll sell the TV series, too.



      • reversethieves says:

        I have never actually seen the 999 films. I do know at least two people who consider them their favorite movies (let alone anime) ever so I am very curious to buy the movies when they come out.

        Well they started releasing Hokuto no Ken so anything is possible but think Fist has a distinctly more vocal and active fandom.

        – Hisui

  4. Cory Gross says:

    Sorry for being late to arrive. I just happened to come across this post today and it’s a fantastic read. Galaxy Express 999 is my favorite anime series, hands down, begetting a whole tage on my own blog and obsessive hunting of anything related to it in Tokyo ^_^ (in fact, I think I’ll pop the soundtrack in my stereo right now…)

    Thank you for such a thought-provoking piece. I honestly hadn’t really bothered myself with trying to discern a consistent moral code out of it. I basically just accepted that Tetsuro pistol-whips cyborgs in the head and Maetel blows up planets, and that’s just how GE999 works.

    I suspect that part of what makes it incomprehensible is that one must have a grounding in Japanese moral systems already. In the cultural spectrum, there are just different ideas of what one might consider good and bad or preferable and non-preferable than one might find in a Judeo-Christian or a Western spectrum.

    If I was going to try and pick out a few things that did stick out in that world, I would say that violence for either self-defense or for vengeance on behalf of loved ones is considered morally acceptable. If they kill your mom or kidnap Maetel, shoot ’em in the head. Also, bravery, remorse and personal transformation are considered laudable and excuse many crimes. The Double Planets were unrepetant destroyers of free will, so blowing them up for vengeance was alright. Shadow, on the other hand, had her moment of tragic self-awareness. Antares had courage and mitigating circumstances, as did most terrorists and revolutionaries on the series, while most just plain thieves did not.

    Also, seeing all of GE999 has become a heck of a lot easier since Crunchyroll put the whole thing online. Thank goodness!

    • reversethieves says:

      I guess I should have said “The morality is incomprehensible to me” more than the “The morality is incomprehensible.”

      Anatres made sense to me. He was the noble thief so once they found out he was a decent guy they were fine with him. It was one of the few times someone having a noble heart and getting a free pass made sense to me. But maybe I am a fuddy duddy.

      – Hisui

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