J'Taime Ginga Tetsudo 999

programme notes for stage musical version of Reiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999, Art Sphere Galaxy Theatre, Tokyo, 1997
Cast from the programme catalogue 1997

While Japanese animation is becoming more popular and widely appreciated in the West, manga does not enjoy this status. Due to printing costs, distribution factors and undefined markets, it is a risky business to repackage a manga and effectively sell it to a Western audience. Cultural differences render translation difficult, and - regrettably - comics are still marginalized. Simply, they are not as respected as they are in Japan.

For those in the West who wish to know more about the Japanese style of story-telling and image-making, this is most unfortunate. There are many manga artists in Japan who would dearly love their work to be read by people around the world, and there are many manga artists whose work deserves international regard.

Reiji Matsumoto is one such artist. From the sardonic observations of a ronin student in Otoko Oidon, to the blunted impact of war upon soldiers in the South Pacific in the Senjo stories, to the densely layered romanticism that weaves throughout Captain Harlock, Sennen Joo and Ginga Tetsudo 999, Reiji Matsumoto has successfully covered a wide range of styles and themes.

While some of the television series based on his manga have enjoyed success on American TV in the late 70s, the depth of these dubbed versions fall well short of conveying the scope and power of Matsumoto's vision. Nonetheless, dubbed TV series like Captain Harlock, Star Blazers (condensed from Uchu Senkan Yamato) and Force Five (condensed and complied from Wakusei Robo Dangard A & SF Saiyuki Starzinger) are fondly remembered by the Star Wars generation.

Yet the true artistry of Reiji Matsumoto lies in his original manga, and in subtitled films like Be Forever Yamato and Arcadia Of My Youth, and in Rin Taro's beautiful realizations of Galaxy Express 999 and Adieu Galaxy Express 999.

The Galaxy Express saga is for me one of the most captivating and engrossing of Reiji Matsumoto's work. The story of young Tetsuro and his quest for a mechanical body, accompanied by the haunting yet gorgeous Maitre recalls the calming, existential tone of Kenji Miyazawa's famous novel Ginga Tetsudo No Yoru and the heady, passionate romance of some of Osamu Tezuka's great manga. Of course there is humour and action in the story's many unfolding chapters, but I cannot fail to be impressed by emotional intensity of what is ultimately a tragedy.

Clearly at the heart of Ginga Tetsudo 999's space opera is a pulsating heart of romance, fuelled by lost love, familial fracture and regretful remorse. The fateful legacy of Maitre, the unrequited love of Claire, the self-effacement of Ryuzu, the lost soul of Shadow - these are captivating and inspired moments which move one beyond the spectacle of Reiji Matsumoto's mechanized marvels. Pure humanism and imperfect machines span the breadth of Reiji Matsumoto's world.

Many Westerners who see Ginga Tetsudo No Yoru for the first time notice the bizarre mix of futuristic technology, WWII military design, Italian westerns and imperial Russian costume design. Part Doctor Zhivago, part A Fistful Of Dollars, part Metropolis - this is a potent example of how Japanese style promotes a daring and unique blend of elements which we in the West would never think of attempting. Most importantly, this bizarre blend is always emotionally resolved and dramatically integrated, indicating the controlled and assured vision of Reiji Matsumoto.

The multi-faceted style that breathes through every frame of both the manga and film of Ginga Tetsudo 999 makes it not only a story with universal appeal, but also a postmodern celebration of transnational culture and retro-future imagining. As the West becomes more attuned to this contemporary approach to inventing worlds and peopling them with complex characters, then both Japanese style and the artistry of masters like Reiji Matsumoto will be widely appreciated and - I hope - critically respected by broad-minded readers.

Text © Philip Brophy. Images © Mitsubishi/Art Sphere.