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  Galaxy Express
1980 | New World Pictures
Galaxy Express from Roger Cormans New World Pictures and Embassy Childrens Treasures

Leiji Matsumoto masterpiece Vs thrifty B Movie legend. Crazy renaming, hefty edits and an infamous John Wayne impression are the results.

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Set in the distant future. Tetsuro dreams of having a machine body which would allow him to escape his limited existence but such an expensive luxury is beyond his reach. It is rumoured that in the Andromeda Galaxy they are given away free but to travel such a distance would require a ticket for Galaxy Express 999, a space bound locomotive that visits the Earth once a year, another extremely expensive proposition.

Making the journey to Megalopolis with his mother to find work the pair are attacked by a gang of Human Hunters led by Count Mecha. Tetsuro's mother is killed, and the young boy swears to avenge her. Tetsuro meets Maetel a mysterious woman the exact double of his murdered mother who offers him the ticket he needs in exchange for accompanying her for the duration of the journey. Together they travel across the universe stopping at strange and dangerous planets and encountering all manner of lifeforms on their way.

One of the driving forces behind Space Battleship Yamato - Leiji Matsumoto's legendary and award winning story was first serialised in the manga Shonen King in 1977 before becoming an anime TV series the following year. Broadcast on Fuji TV the show ran for 114 half hour episodes based closely on the manga storyline. It proved popular enough for Toei, the studio behind the small screen version, to produce a big budget movie.

Reworking the plot of the Manga/TV series the 130 min movie, simply titled Galaxy Express 999, was released while the TV series was still ongoing, hitting cinemas 4th August 1979, shortly after the 42nd episode aired. It was directed by Rin Taro who had helmed the movie spin-off of Matsumoto's Captain Harlock TV show, Mystery of Arcadia, the previous year. He would return to Leiji Matsumoto's universe for the 1981 Galaxy Express Sequel Adieu Galaxy Express.

Following the success of Star Wars and the subsequent popularity of anything Sci-Fi, legendary B-Movie producer/director Roger Corman acquired the Galaxy Express 999 movie and Westernised it through his company New World Pictures.

With the title shortened to Galaxy Express the movie reached a small number of screens in 1980 at a lighter running time of 94 mins. The PG rated feature altered or removed several events from the original story most notably the ending in which key events were shifted around to mask the heroic self-sacrifice of one of the characters.

These weren't the only changes either, character names were given an American comic-book flavour with Olaf, Captain Warlock, Sundown McMoon and Joey Hanakanabobakananda-Smith, replacing Antales, Captain Harlock, Tochiro and Tetsuro Hoshino. The Japanese soundtrack was left in place with only the title song being re-written into English.

The cinema release was short lived and the film disappeared, except for the occasional cable TV airing, until 1984 when it was made available on video through Embassy Home Entertainment - since New World Pictures wouldn't have their own video division until the following year.

Released under the Children's Treasures label which, amongst all the live-action family fare, Berenstain Bears, Raccoons and Three Stooges, was also home to the anime based Time Fighters and Fairy Tales Volumes 1-4.

At the time Embassy Home Entertainment was owned by Norman Lear, a successful TV producer behind many family favourites of the 1970's like The Jeffersons and Sanford and Son but a few years later he sold it off to another independent video distributor Nelson Entertainment who themselves were sold on shortly after. It is likely that the rights to Galaxy Express lapsed some while during these ownership changes and the New World Pictures version of the film was never to be re-released.

Galaxy Express 999 Poster Galaxy Express USA poster   Japanese OST LP
The Japanese Movie Poster
The USA Movie Poster
The Japanese Soundtrack LP
999 Model Kit

The chewed up opening forgoes any introductions or narration and jumps straight into the credits. Before you know it the Galaxy Express 999 has arrived at "Megaropolice Central Station" on Earth. Now, you might expect a city named Megaropolice to be a somewhat crime free zone but from the looks of things people have let it slide.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Deep in the slums a group of kids are seen running to the station. A mechanically augmented couple arrive there too and, finally - at 3 minutes and 18 seconds, we get the first line of the movie: "An unlimited pass for all lines including local lines. Please." says the girl in such a bizarre Bronx-Canary accent that it seems all hope for a tolerable dub have already been lost. "Yes, I wan-too-tek Galaxy Neyn Neyn Neyn plees."

From the gloomy slums to the Central Station one thing is oddly clear; People in the future sure are still. As the ticket machine prints the pass, the young boy runs up and snatches it - a chase ensues.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

The kids work together to keep the machine man and the station police from snatching back the ticket. The dapper droid gets knocked to the ground but we don't get to see Tetsuro stepping over his robo-corpse - although you can still hear it crackling on the soundtrack.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

The boy is momentarily caught, and slapped in the face by the metal hand of the law, causing him to lose the pendant that hangs around his neck. He spots it taken by a mysterious woman who looks exactly like his mother. Except for the blonde hair. And, if he's willing to overlook differing hair colour then nearly every woman in this movie looks exactly like his mother!

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Receiving the stolen train pass from his pals the kid makes a dash for the slums on a motorised skateboard. Sure, it doesn't hover, but it is still better than anything we've got now - in the real future. Eventually the chase winds up with the creepy robot cops (now with glowing searchlight eyes) following the boy up the fire escape of a condemned building. Joey has spotted the mysterious woman near the top and, upon reaching her, is too exhausted to confront her, he simply collapses, losing his train pass in the process. The woman rescues him form the trigger happy Inspector Gadgets.

Joey is asleep in a hotel room, in a bed not a bath of ice - his organs un harvested. It seems the mysterious woman has another use for the boy. Rather than wake him and ask him his story she instead invades his privacy with a florescent sticker she takes from her futuristic compact. From his memories she learns the pendant was a final gift from his dead mother, killed by the Human Hunter Count Mecha who took her corpse back to his Time Castle to "celebrate". Strangely he remembers from a third person perspective.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Waking, Joey walks in on the woman showering and becomes embarrassed. Why? What did he think was going on in there? The woman introduces herself as Maetel and she has an oddly deep voice. Did Joey see something extra in the shower? Is that why he was so shocked? Maetel offers to give Joey a free ticket aboard the "Nine Ninety-nine" on the condition that he ride with her, and the boy readily accepts. Anything to reach Andromeda and receive the mechanical body he needs to kill Count Mecha. He is told that taking this journey means he can never return to Earth (although that turns out to be untrue).

The police finally catch up to them so the pair head back to the station. They board the Nine-99 and, as it launches into space, we are treated to a completely new American version of the song Taking Off. Rather than an up beat toe tapper its a more solemn, optimistically cautious ballad. For fear of being severely berated, I preferred it to the proper one.

Either way, it's better than Bullets would have done.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

First stop Titan. Joey is informed by the conductor (who has the exact same voice as a camp cartoon cat whose name completely escapes me) that if he misses the train's departure he will be left to die there. I agree with Joey's assessment that this is "pretty rough", I also think it makes for a very good argument for staying on the train all the way to Andromeda. Forget your little adventures, I'm living in the carriage. The Getalong Gang pretty much managed it, after all.

No sooner have Joey and Maetel got off the train then they witness a man be shot dead in the street. Seconds later Maetel is kidnapped by two men. Joey is stunned by a laser blast. All in broad day light. Montgomery Moose never saw a guy get iced and Dotty Dog get carried off into white slavery. Stay on the train.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Joey finds himself in an old ladies cottage. The woman tells him (in yet another weird approximation of a female voice) that Maetel has been kidnapped by the Bandits of Vulture Valley. She hands the child a powerful handgun and some old clothes and sends him off in the general direction. Saturn's radiation is very strong. If you're going outside, best wear a hat.

Did I mention that the hat is like the one she made for her son Sundown McMoon? Oh, well that's important later.

Upstream Joey rescues a captive girl and saves a salty looking bandit from a Machineman. The bandit is revealed to be Olaf: Bandit Chief of the Vulture Valley (and owner of a wandering accent). Joey (full name Joey Hanakanabobakananda-smith - no, really) is hauled back to their hideout to find out if he is a robot or not. Maetel, who they were responsible for kidnapping, is also subjected to investigation and is found to be human as well. Olaf tells them how he runs his own "Paradise for kids" on a planet where there are no laws and people do as they please. The pair leave shortly after.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Next stop Pluto. It seems the people of Pluto are just as motionless as those of Earth. Maetel has something to do so she leaves the boy alone to his own devices. Instead of searching for the Arcades Hanakanabobakananda-smith follows her to a place that acts as a frozen grave site. Initially freaked out by all the deep frozen stiffs Joey learns from a face-less woman called shadow that these are the discarded bodies of people who became mechanised. The creepy caretaker takes Joey back to her dwelling to show him her original body (good line) but things get nasty when she decides to keep him there and hold him close to her body forever! By luck Maetel walks by and shames shadow into releasing her companion. Back on the train Joey plans to use Maetel's mind reading device to find out her reason for visiting the graveyard but chooses not to know at the last minute. To make sure he sticks to his decision he completely destroys the woman's gadget. Seems fair.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Time for dinner. The pair meet Claire the crystal waitress and order two medium steaks with a baked potato, milk for the boy and a coffee for his companion but they don't get to see any of it as the passing of a pirate ship causes panic. Things are made much worse when Joey fires on it to get their attention. The Pirate captain of the ship, Emerelda boards Nine-99 intent on killing the person responsible but relents when she sees Joey's gun. It seems she knows the original owner. As such, she agrees to answer his question "Where is Count Mecha's Time Castle?" Emerelda informs him that the Count is currently at Hangman's Hollow which is found at the next stop. Later Claire begs the conductor to skip the next stop but he just laughs at her.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

They land at Hangman's Hollow and from the music it seems to be a Jewish community. Joey decides to "mosey around" a little to find out what he can about Count Mecha. He soon finds himself in an underground dive bar - a sort of cross between a western saloon and a depressing end-of-the-line drinking pit, full of depressed men - all yet again sitting perfectly still. Everyone might be less suicidal if they hired more upbeat entertainment. The crowd cheers up a little to laugh when Joey orders a glass of milk but things turn sour again when he mentions Count Mecha's name. The grizzled bar keep advices him to visit the strange man at Buzzard's Peak.

Fleeing a gang of thugs, led by a man with robotic nipples, Joey Hanakanabobakananda-smith locates the outcast's home at the edge of a cliff. Sundown McMoon instantly recognises the young boy's hat as one made by his mother and welcomes him in. Seems the old hermit has developed a few prejudices while he's been on his own. He hates Machine-people - he knew fleshy Count Mecha (presumably Count Organic?) as a warm and kind hearted person but that all changed when he traded up. But old Sundown McMoon is in poor shape, "I've been following him so long, so many planets, I've picked up an incurable space disease." Should've been more careful where he parked his spaceship!

McMoon tells Joey to expect the Count at midnight in Hangman's Hollow. He then asks him to pull a lever while he takes a lye down. There's a big flash of light and Sundown McMoon is gone. What was that all about? Did he pull the wrong lever? Outside, Joey attends a makeshift grave for his very recently departed friend before crossing paths with those thugs he thought he'd lost. Robo-nips and his cronies kick the kid around a bit and then leave with his gun.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Joey stumbles back to the saloon unaware that he has been followed. He spots the thugs sitting at a table with his loaner-gun. He approaches to take it back but receives a second beating. But help is to hand. Captain Harlock Warlock steps in snaps the led bully's hand off and then forces milk down his throat, causing his insides to rust. In keeping with the Western Cowboy theme Warlock speaks like a mock John Wayne. The Duke escorts Joey back to the hotel where his reunited with Maetel. Emeralda is there too and takes the news of Sundown's (inferred) passing badly, for some reason.

Midnight comes and Joey sneaks into the Count's Time Castle. Inside is a sight not going to be topped in this movie - cloaked ghouls using forklifts. Joey heads deeper into the creepy castle and discovers probably the most disturbing sight for the young boy - his mother's naked body hung on display. In the next room he finds Count Mecha himself, relaxing with some of his robotisized chums. Joey's chances don't look too good but fortunately Olaf is visiting too and a number of nameless background machine-men get sent to the great smelting oven in the sky.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Joey pursues Count Mecha into the Castle's control room, a blast from Mrs McMoon's pistol takes his cyborg arm off. The Count begs for forgiveness but it's just a ploy to catch the boy off guard. Olaf takes the hit, Count and his female companion (the singer from the saloon) hide inside a laser proof panic room. Using the live ammunition still buried in his body, Olaf detonates, shattering the protective glass. The singer refuses the Count's demands to activate the Time Castle, leaving him completely vulnerable, Joey sees his chance and shoots for the head.

The Count's metal brain-case bursts apart in a surprisingly violent manner, just as he pulls the castle self-destruct lever. The singer explains that she was once a warm hearted human, stripping off in front of the minor as if he needed to see her robo-boobs for proof. She warns of the caste's imminent collapse as she begins to rust away. Joey makes a run for it and his escape is much faster than the Japanese original leaving the music out of sync with events. Meeting Warlock and Maetel Joey announces that his quest has not yet ended. Now he has vowed to cleanse all mechanisation from the universe and will destroy Andromeda the planet where machine bodies are manufactured.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Final stop: Planet Maetel, birth place of He-Man - no, wait that's Mattel. Maetel: the mechanisation planet. Joey is fast asleep (Maetel let him on the sauce) so he doesn't get to hear this name until he leaves the train in the station. He smells a rat. The robot guards greet his companion as Princess Maetel and inform her that Joey's responses from their journey have been fed into, and become part of, the central computer, a fate that now awaits the boy himself.

Brought to Queen Promethea Joey learns that he is to become a bolt, he is understandably annoyed. Just as the mechanisation process is to begin Maetel enters the room holding an amulet, the voice from which the Queen recognises as her dead husband. Maetel's part in this scheme was all just a ploy to bring down the Machine empire, by dropping the amulet in the heart of the planet it will release the energy of all the people whose bodies make up the components of the metal globe and it will be destroyed.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

While Maetel suffers a crisis of conscience back up arrives in the form of Captain Warlock and Emerelda. Outside, things explode and guns blaze. Inside Joey takes decisive action and flings the amulet to the ground causing the destruction of Planet Maetel to begin. Joey and Maetel flee while everything falls down around them. Maetel explains that the body he saw in the Count's castle was a copy given to him by her mother who used the real body for Maetel. Alone in the centre of the planet Queen Promethea shatters and dissolves into the air.

Galaxy Express 999 Galaxy Express Roger Corman presents Galaxy Express

Joey and Maetel safely board the nine-99 and make their final escape. They part ways with the space pirates and head back to Earth. At the Megalopolis Central Station the time has come for them to part ways too. Maetel is leaving for Pluto in search of her original body and this is one journey she must make alone, despite Joey's feelings. As a parting gift Maetel kneels down and kisses Joey - on the lips! Undead-semi-incest-child-abuse! And she plied him with alcohol earlier. Ack!

Joey watches as Maetel boards a train and it heads out of the station and into space, never for the two to meet again.

Galaxy Express    

Until the sequel.


Taking Off
The English language re-recording of the song Taking Off.

Interesting Accents and Edits
John Wayne Harlock, and that ending

Faithful script (mostly)
Adequate dub (mostly)
  Enjoyable story
  Great score
Odd choice of names
Odd selection of voices (esp Maetel)
  Looses a lot in translation

The dub isn't as bad as many would have you believe, its just an average American animated movie dub of the 70's era. Sure it's not ideal but it's competent and is certainly no Techno Police or Macross in Clash of the Bionoids. Aside from the ill judged John Wayne Harlock and Cowboy overtones the voices are perfectly adequate although I found Maetel's slightly odd. Sounding digitally altered - deepened - a voice usually reserved for female characters who are not quite right - possessed by evil or an evil robot replica (like in Thunderbirds 2086). Always something evil.

Some of the editing choices are strange too. Odd bits of transition, a pan-around here, and walking scene there. Unlike previous productions (Macross, Locke, Revenge of the Ninja Warrior) there are no large scenes missing just lots and lots of tiny snips. Despite this the story still retains some of the deeper themes of humanity etc although all the subtleties are lost. The significance of Harlock in this universe are never made clear as aren't Emeralda's motivations and Claire may as well not be in it at all. She only appears largely for being in the background of key scenes that couldn't be cut. And the whole scene with "Sundown McMoon" may as well have been excised completely seeing as it only confuses when shorn of its relevance.

The script is reasonably faithful to the original dialog and the new songs are fitting. Really, this movie is an unusual choice for an American cinema feature. The characters are a bit outlandish for mass market tastes not to mention the violence and partial nudity being a worry for conservative family audiences. The underlying themes are pretty heavy stuff for a supposedly throwaway Sci-fi cartoon as well.

Anyhow, I quite enjoyed this one, though obviously the full subtitled version is far better and is now readily available. As with Warriors of the Wind, it is easy to hate it for how it is perceived to have treated a legend but, in the end, they brought the stories to a wider audience than would have possibly seen them otherwise.