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"Galaxy Railways Volume 1 Ahead Full!": What if the Millennium Falcon had a Caboose?

Many people credit George Lucas’s epic Star Wars franchise with the creating the modern space opera, but manga legend Leiji Matsumoto’s classic series Space Battleship Yamato (Star Blazers in the U.S.) broke ground on this genre three years earlier. Since then Matsumoto has generally pursued sci-fi of a more surreal or whimsical nature, including the adventures of the space traveling train Galaxy Express 999. In 2003 he brought together the best of both worlds in Galaxy Railways. The just released DVD Station 1 Ahead Full! contains the first five episodes.

SDF roll callIn a far off future man traverses the universe by means of the Galaxy Railways, riding trains that fly amongst the stars like spaceships. It’s a violent reality in which trouble often arises, and when it does the Space Defense Force (SDF) is called in to deal with it. I struggled a little with the flying locomotive thing at first, but eventually accepted it as one of the charming eccentricities of the Matsumoto-verse. It is a universe that is largely responsible for my interest in anime, for many years ago I got hooked on Yamato and never looked back. Unfortunately, legal entanglements have thus far prevented Matsumoto from revisiting the Yamato franchise, but until that day Galaxy Railways is an exceptional substitute. All his trademarks are here: fascinating technology, stupendous art design, memorable heroes, ethical quandaries, mysteries of the universe, passionate love, tragic death, and lots of action.

As episode 1, “Departure,” begins, asteroids disable a passenger train, and Captain Wataru Yuuki’s SDF Sirius Platoon responds in the mighty Big One train. To his great surprise his young sons, the older and cautious Mamoru and the reckless Manabu have stowed away. Manabu is bursting with eagerness to join the SDF and help his father, and Mamoru quietly echoes this desire. Just as the SDF finishes picking up all the passengers a mysterious alien warship appears and a firefight breaks out. As the battle turns for the worse, Wataru must make a desperate decision that will irrevocably alter the fate of all three Yuuki men.

In “Knot in Time” Manabu finally comes of age and heads off on a transport train to the SDF’s base planet Destiny, sharing a compartment with the pretty, proud, and quick-tongued fellow cadet Louis Fort Worth. When the train enters a time knot, where time and space are distorted, it veers off course and crash-lands in the middle of a battle on the Planet Hakumei, or Early Death. Manabu is amazed to run into his long-presumed-dead brother, now a member of the SDF’s elite Space Panzer force.

In “Wheel of Fate” a train is hijacked by a man seeking the delivery of his estranged girlfriend. Sirius soon responds in Big One, and its commander, Captain Bulge (it’s German—he’s not fat), orders Louis and jovial teammate David to set up a diversion while Manabu and Bruce attack from the rear. Bruce strongly objects to working with “mama’s boy” Manabu, whom he believes is an unreliable glory-hound trying to live up to the elder Yuukis’ legacy.

“Eternity” is a little bit Scooby Doo, and a little bit Twilight Zone. A mysterious ghost train called Eternity has for centuries roamed the universe, picking up the dead from disaster areas. On the planet Merides the young man Terry hops aboard at its rare appearance, hoping to be reunited with his deceased love Karen. His sister Jane is distraught and requests the help of the SDF, who fly out to investigate at the Eternity’s next projected stop.

“Hijacked” concludes the disc with a strong western theme, including a wild fistfight on top of a speeding train. Sirius goes to investigate the sabotage of a transport train on the Arizona-like planet Leo Glando. While the crew is on patrol, pirates make off with the Big One with David aboard. Recon reveals that Big One is headed for a transport spaceship belonging to the infamous Death Kreuz criminal organization, which plans to exploit its state of the art technology for weapons development. The SDF high command orders that the Big One be destroyed to prevent this.

Familiar Matsumoto themes, such as a strong sense of duty and reluctance to use lethal force, run throughout the series. Much is made of destiny and whether or not man has the ability to influence it. It’s interesting to note the much more active role of female characters as compared to the similar Yamato thirty years ago.

The Yuukis are familiar Matsumoto types, closely resembling Yamato hero Kodai. Louis is a strong female hero with a quick wit, and the back and forth between her and Manabu is often amusing. One suspects romance will eventually blossom there, but the jury’s still out. Bruce behaves like a cranky Han Solo, always putting down Manabu’s Luke. David is the team’s resident jokester and gambler, often trying to lighten the mood and willing to bet on literally anything. The exact role of Layla Destiny, the SDF’s supreme commander, remains shrouded in mystery, but we do know that she is prone to speaking in annoying Matrix-like riddles and may possess some degree of supernatural powers, making her another typical Matsumoto creation. The dub is not quite great, but it features much better acting than many comparable recent series.

For action fans, the highlights of this volume are the epic space battle in episode 1 and the frantic train chase in episode 5. The Matsumoto crowd will be vastly entertained picking out all the countless references to his classic franchises. The most obvious is the appearance of Yamato‘s nurse Yuki, surprisingly introduced via a gratuitous close-up of her shapely derriere. Mamoru shares his name with Kodai’s older brother (also MIA), and he begins his journey on train number 999. Many designs are lifted from other shows, including Yamato‘s fighters, cannon, pistols, and uniforms

A few awkward moments aside, Galaxy Railways features excellent animation in Matsumoto’s trademark style. The occasional CGI is infinitely better than the crude stuff used in his Harlock Saga.

The extras are fairly impressive for a TV series. First is a brief interview with Matsumoto himself, in which he describes the series’ key elements. Next is a cool feature I’ve never seen before, an uncut recording session with the Japanese cast for episode 2. Impressively executed without pauses, it becomes a somewhat amusing game of musical chairs as the various actors shuffle from one mike to the next, their expressions changing from deadly serious to wildly eccentric and back at the drop of a hat. In the series’ brief introductory press conference, Matsumoto explains that he wanted to base a series around trains because his destiny was determined when he took a train to Tokyo as a teenager to chase his dream of writing manga. Finally there are the usual character profiles containing info that is redundant for anyone who’s watched the disc. The absence of an art gallery on a lavish Matsumoto production is quite unforgivable, but perhaps they’re saving that for a future volume.

Galaxy Railways is obviously a must see for Matsumoto fans, as it ranks among his best works. Even if you have no idea who he is (for shame), anyone with a taste for space opera in the Star Wars style should enjoy it. Kick back and imagine a wondrous day when Amtrak is your gateway to the stars… Good Lord! Time to beef up that travel insurance.

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