Simply put, Galaxy Express 999 avoids the most common pitfall of socially conscious science fiction by not trying to disguise the point it is trying to make in science-fiction jargon, or couch it in allegory. Instead, it makes the simple and devastating argument that scientific progress won’t actually fix the problems in society and will most likely just make them worse. It’s a bold move and one that doesn’t always work because there are some things that haven’t quite held up as thinking-points since its first airing in 1978. Similarly, society has changed and with it perhaps attitudes to social issues.
But broadly speaking while Galaxy Express is wild, unscientific sci-fi of weird and unlikely worlds and trains in space, absolutely none of this gets in the way of the fact most episodes are just extremely explicit complaints about something wrong with people. The show is over a hundred episodes long and trying to be comprehensive would be a fruitless endeavour, but I’m going to here talk about some of the episodes and themes that worked very well – even if the execution of the whole episode might have had some issues, there’s often something very relatable to it.
The biggest preoccupation I feel is poverty, and the way society responds to it. This is reflected in stories about urbanisation and flight from the country, about the poor being squeezed out of society by the needs of the rich, about the way that the poor are unable to pursue the jobs they want because they don’t have the income or connections or status to be able to give up their current way of life. The whole premise of Galaxy Express is someone travelling the universe, seeing it at its worst and at its best, to get free healthcare. The series is open about this from the start, which features the protagonist’s family killed by decadent nobles for sport because they are commoners. This is perhaps not quite a plainly “realistic” bit of social commentary compared to where this is going, but it lays out quite plainly that we are watching a series that dislikes the rich.
But if one jumps eight episodes on to Trader Junction (episodes 9-10) there’s a remarkably devastating two-parter that walks a fine line in what ground it covers. The premise is simple. Trader Junction is a planet that serves as a galactic transport hub, where people commute to other worlds to work. Like a lot of suburban places with good transport connections, it is thoroughly gentrified and an unpleasant place to live; it is all soulless, sterile tower blocks and vast amounts of lower-class housing where those trapped in an inescapable cycle of subsistence live unable to afford to better their station but equally reliant on living in these expensive places for their ability to go and work somewhere nearby. The liminal nature of a commuter town makes it into a place where nobody can truly live, merely survive. I was worried at a point during the episode when Tetsuro finds himself ultimately besieged by the poor and homeless demanding he show them the same charity he showed one person; the argument that if you help the poor they will only get used to it and demand more was worryingly close here. But the episode avoided this ably. It pivoted that argument round to personal philanthropy is never going to fix societal inequality and should never have to.
It did not present what Tetsuro did as bad, even if it did suggest it came from a position of naive privilege. It may have condemned the people of Trader Junction for acting as they did, but it demonstrated that this is a product of a deplorable status quo and encouraged the viewer, I feel, to turn their anger towards that. And even the “villain” of the episode, the woman who ends up in a ridiculous forced marriage to Tetsuro, is shown to be sympathetic. She is someone who left her home in the country to go to the city and work, and ended up in the same cycle of subsistence as so many others – working herself to the point where she has lost her health, beauty and hope as her parents live out their old age alone in the countryside, lost in memories of rural life that has faded away. It could not have been a clearer indictment of urbanisation and the flight to the cities. Cities may offer prosperity and jobs but the mass migration causes the countryside to suffer, and the nature of capitalism means that many young people end up trapped barely able to continue living to work.
The nature of labour and its value is perhaps the next most important theme in Galaxy Express if one focuses in on its leftwing politics. Here I feel the ground is perhaps less steady, mostly due to the nature of episode 33, Ulatres’ Mountain of Screws. But that is one episode that cannot quite stick its landing (and yet has up to the very end been very good) and one which both comes directly after the extremely good The Bitten Planet of Suspended Space and feels linked to the themes of episode 16, The Town of Fireflies. Before I talk about Ulatres it’s time to put it in context. Episode 16 itself builds on episode 15, The Water Country Beethoven as a thematically-linked pair of episodes about how society undervalues the creative arts as they are not productive enough; Beethoven is about a composer who feels trapped on a rural, low-tech planet where his wish to pursue the creative arts is stifled by being trapped working in the family hot spring resort, unable to afford a ticket to leave. Its ending is perhaps a little naive, with him deciding to turn to crime to escape his boring life and being talked down with the reassurance that one day he will be able to work his way up through society and afford to travel to somewhere “better.” But it’s laying important groundwork on the wider point of society’s idea of who is useful and who deserves to prosper is wrong.
We go straight from Beethoven to Town of Fireflies where once again Tetsuro meets a creative mind trapped in poverty; more so even than the composer, who by all accounts had a comfortable but unfulfilling life. Fraiya is a member of the underclass of a stratified planet where only those who win the genetic lottery and can “shine” like fireflies can ascend in status. She is an animator, who lives in a run-down house and spends her life drawing storyboard for films that will never be seen because she lacks status and “value”. Tetsuro intercedes, buying her screenplays and ensuring they reach an audience. We have seen ultimately two takes on the same material with different endings. One could say they’re laying down a clear idea of what “virtue” in this context is – forbearance and integrity are good, violently trying to claim more status is bad – but even so the accompanying point – that creativity is a game for the rich and well-connected and privileged – holds very true.
The Bitten Planet isn’t quite the same ground here and is one of 999’s more environmentalist episodes (for it does not shy away from commenting on that too, often with a simple anger) so to round off this I return now to Ulatres. Thematically there’s a certain parallel to be found with the very good anti-consumerist and anti-industrial parable A Steel Angel (which is about a factory worker who starts a worker’s movement to oppose her unethical employer). But at its heart the vast majority of Ulatres focuses on how society undervalues the working class via its focus on Spiral, a factory worker on a planet that exists purely to make vast quantities of screws. Spiral, it is revealed, saved up all her money to become immortal (the ethics of immortality being another of the series’ preoccupations) and now ended up living forever in debt, working a minimum-wage factory job unable to age, die or retire. The commentary here seems self-evident and immeasurably powerful. Any improvements in quality of life will be used by those who do not need to work to ensure those who must work will work longer and harder. Combine this with two episodes of society undervalues creative people as not productive and one of the working class are exploited by their employers and you have a lightning-bolt of socialism right through this space steam train anime.
So why do I say Ulatres fails at the last hurdle? The episode’s ending, unlike that of A Steel Angel, robs the story of any hope or even real progressive intent. Spiral is driven to kidnap Tetsuro in frustration at her endless life of menial work but is redeemed by her skills at machining being the only thing that can save the day. Because she is suddenly shown the value of her work, she comes to love it. I don’t like this ending, it’s way too neat and undermines the message that has previously been very unsubtly made. And I think perhaps it speaks to an unsaid message that would have maybe been a little too much. Spiral finds meaning in her life because she realises her work has purpose. The viewer may be being expected to then say “so the problem, once again, is that society doesn’t value these essential people.” That would have been a much stronger conclusion. But as I said in the introduction, Galaxy Express 999 is a series decades old, likely limited by format and demographic, and rather than over-focusing on how some episodes don’t offer a sufficiently leftwing moral message it’s better to point to the fact that this 100+ episode anime about strange and fantastical planets isn’t afraid to just say how much we should hate the employing class and those who would sell the environment for short-term profit and so on. There’s so much good, raw anger in there that I can forgive moments of slightly naive conservatism.