One thing that should be acknowledged before this review is that I have yet to finish this series (currently on episode 75) and may or may not make adjustments in the future.
Leiji Matsumoto spent a large portion of his life constantly elaborating his own personal universe defined by certain key characters amongst a huge cast who left their marks on the various places in space. On these journeys, several questions are bound to be asked; is technological advancement something positive or negative; Will increased comfort eventually lead to our ambitious and creative decay; Is it possible to live on without inventing a purpose of existence and, as is made the most prominent in Galaxy Express 999, what is it that makes you human?
When young Tetsuro Hoshino who recently lost his mother is offered a ticket to the Galaxy Express by a mysterious and beautiful woman named Maetel, he sees the possibility to get himself a mechanical body and live a life long enough to compensate for the early demises of his parents. You see, the story takes place in a future where mechanical bodies are the norm for privileged individuals of wealth or power as well as highly desired by the less fortunate. These bodies are impossibly expensive but rumor has it that they're given away for free on the planet Andromeda, one of many stops on the route of the Galaxy Express; a train traveling through the universe. In other words, Tetsuro has to visit a huge number of planets before reaching his goal and these experiences cause him to question whether he should keep striving for his invented Raison d'Être or just embrace his humanity.
This anime is incredibly episodic and when you consider the large amount of episodes you might be able to guess what the major problems are. If not, then allow me to explain: inconsistency and predictability. During its very best, Galaxy Express can reach the same allegorical and thought-provoking levels as Kino's Journey but most episodes are nothing more than "okay" while some of them can even be terrible. One of my favorites tells the story of a planet where the inhabitants are starving since almost all food is given to the queen who, as it turns out, died 200 years ago but hid herself before that happened in a narcissistic attempt to prevent anyone from seeing her once beautiful body reduced to a pile of bones.
Furthermore, since each episode requires some sort of conflict, almost all of them basically boil down into "Tetsuro and Maetel visits a planet, something bad happens which might prevent them from returning to the Galaxy Express. They solve it."
To be fair though, I haven't seen the ending yet so I might alter the score after that.
Given its length and age, Galaxy Express boasts fairly impressive animation that nonetheless is very obsolete and naturally can't compete with anything remotely recent. A lot of characters are forced into the same state of cartoonism you could find in Captain Harlock while others are blessed with a little more detail. Women are tall and slender to incorporate the ideals Matsumoto seems to have, topped off with long and beautiful hair. Does the old animation prevent you from enjoying the show? The answer is no, working on the assumption that you don't condemn anything based on its age. While holding little to no regard for realism, the various creatures in space are interestingly designed while the mere concept of a train traveling through space (inspired by Night on the Galactic Railroad) is pulled off well enough to establish a unique and impressive atmosphere.
The music in this show is actually quite good even if most tracks are re-used over and over again until they've made their way into your head not solely because of their quality but primarily because they're repeated. Voice acting is a mixed bag with Tetsuro sounding occasionally obnoxious (or if you prefer to call it just childish) and Maetel delivering her lines in a state of melancholia. Sound effects are made well enough for the time being and the background noise played during scenes inside the train made me want to embark on an impossible journey using a space-train as my main vehicle.
In case the premise didn't highlight this enough, the very core of Galaxy Express is comprised of the journey towards self-discovery young Tetsuro embarks on under the guidance of Maetel; a woman of beauty, wisdom and above all else, experience. He's not supposed to be portrayed as heroic even though he reaches the level of a terrific childhood role-model in his sense of justice and will to help alone. Together, the two protagonists make for a memorable team even though Tetsuro never seems to learn from his mistakes; which should be the entire point of the journey.
Furthermore, Galaxy Express tends to be somewhat depressing in its decision to observe miserable fates all across the universe whilst only occasionally deciding to depict something less heartbreaking. Individuals who spend their lives doing one pointless thing; A planet with more inhabitants than the current China who beg for a living and some characters in general who seem to accept their eternal suffering which does not in any way make it less sad are mere examples of what the show has to offer. The major problem lies in the fact that most of these characters are introduced hastily only to be killed shortly after or just left behind for the next story to begin. In other words, some of the sympathy you normally would have is instantly lost and all of the excruciatingly sad lifestyles are quickly forgotten as Tetsuro and Maetel continue.
Make no mistake, so far I'm enjoying this show almost immensely but there's no way to review it without acknowledging all of the major flaws. Some episodes are, as mentioned, incredible not only from a story-related but also thought-provoking standpoint and the moral messages, whilst obvious or possibly clichéd for anyone older than twelve or so, are suited perfectly for slightly younger children. In the end, this is not the space epic you might expect but rather a somewhat elaborate tale of a young boy whose impression of life itself changes over time as he's exposed to the various lifestyles and opinions of the people he encounters. At the same time, he leaves several positive impressions of a seemingly lost humanity behind and continues to touch and inspire those who fail to see anything of value in existence. In the very truest sense he embodies everything the typical young hero Matsumoto so loves to depict should have and will probably grow up to reach the heights of Harlock or Emeraldas. Who knows, maybe this is even answered in another title from the vast Leijiverse?
Regardless of its qualities, to discover the occasional gem of an episode you’ll be forced to wander through a huge sea of mediocrity, which basically sums up the overall score in one sentence. If you’re up to the challenge, then by all means, proceed!