Galaxy Express 999's creator, Leiji Matsumoto, is probably best known to Western audiences for his work on Space Battleship Yamato (or Star Blazers, as it's known stateside). And understandably, the two series share similar themes. In Star Blazers, a WWII-era Japanese Imperial Navy battleship—the Yamato—is refitted to become a spaceship and the last hope for mankind's survival. The ship and its intrepid crew embark on a perilous journey across the galaxy to obtain the means to save humanity from extinction. Meanwhile, Galaxy Express 999 tells the story of a young boy named Tetsuro, who embarks on a perilous journey across the galaxy to obtain the means to help him live forever. Also, there are space trains.
Let's repeat that for those not paying attention: There. Are. Space. Trains. Trains, in space, which travel from planet to planet on routes called the Galaxy Railways. (Incidentally, the Galaxy Railways inspired a spin-off series of the same name.) The juxtaposition between ancient and modern is a common aspect of Matsumoto's work, and it's in full force here. This series was made in the late-1970s, when Star Wars was the pinnacle of space special effects. If you wanted to create something Star Wars-ish on a TV budget, the easiest and cheapest way to do so was (and still is) via animation.
Tetsuro's world is a difficult one, despite the abundance of space trains. He and his mother endure hardship on Earth, and they both wish to obtain robotic bodies, which will effectively make them immortal and free them from their downtrodden lives. They're too poor to afford that kind of luxury on Earth, but there is a rumor that the distant planet Andromeda provides the service for free. At the beginning of the series, Tetsuro and his mother have saved up for a ticket on the Galaxy Express 999, which makes its final stop at Andromeda. But unforeseen circumstances arise (as always happens in the first episode of any show) and Tetsuro ends up boarding the train alone. He does, however, encounter a woman named Maetel, who is also on her way to the final stop.
Galaxy Express 999's first episode, in which Tetsuro climbs aboard the Galaxy Express and meets a beautiful and mysterious woman named Maetel.
Pirate Ship Queen Emeraldas
Space Pirates! Pirates, in Space! Female space pirates! Why aren't you watching this one right now?
Like all good science fiction, Galaxy Express 999 excels at social commentary. Tetsuro visits a plethora of planets where society is divided into distinct social classes, both privileged and not. And as he continually encounters people on his journey, he starts to rethink the reason for his quest in the first place. Is it truly better to have a mechanical body, or will it fundamentally change him forever? However, his devotion to his mother (echoed by his devotion to Maetel) spurs him to keep following this "dream" his mom had for him.
The original Galaxy Express 999 series ran for 113 episodes and is considered a classic sci-fi epic. Even though Galaxy Express 999 is 30 years old, Leiji Matsumoto's work is still exceedingly popular in Japan, and his influence is everywhere—in the character designs of the current crop of anime series, in countless homages and parodies, and even in a Maetel robot at Kita-Kyushu airport. Can you imagine a robotic Marge Simpson doing the same tasks at O'Hare? Doubtful. But the Japanese truly love Matsumoto, and series like Galaxy Express 999 and Star Blazers are reasons why you should too.