No School Like the Old School: All Aboard for "The Galaxy Railways" Viridian Box
For a generation of kids in the 1970’s, one of the highlights of after school TV time was Star Blazers. We’d all rush home after school to watch the latest installment as the Space Battleship Yamato (re-christened the Argo in the English dub) battled its way through the Gamilon Empire fleet to the distant planet Iscandar with the fate of Earth hanging in the balance. It was a perfect follow-up to the blockbuster success of Star Wars, mixing classic space opera elements with a far more complex and sophisticated tone and narrative than any American action cartoon at the time.
Most of us weren’t aware of it at the time, but much of the show’s appeal was due to Leiji Matsumoto, who solidified his stature in the anime industry with his contributions to Space Battleship Yamato. Just short of thirty years later, Matsumoto brought The Galaxy Railways to Japanese TV screens and demonstrated that the years had done nothing to dilute his skills. The series was imported by FUNimation in 2005, and is now available in a 6-disc set on their Viridian Collection label. From start to finish, it is an old-school delight, packed with space opera derring-do and unafraid to embrace the more sentimental aspects of the genre without irony. It is thoroughly, unapologetically Old School, down to the gloriously retro theme songs, and that’s one of many things that makes the show so thoroughly enjoyable.
The premise of The Galaxy Railways is “giant trains in space,” and if you’re having plausibility issues with that, you’re probably best off stopping right now and going off to find something a bit more conventional. In the future, humanity travels the stars via the Galaxy Railways: a giant network of train lines criss-crossing the galaxy. Defending the rails are the stalwart men, women, and robots of the Space Defense Force (SDF), responsible for day-to-day operation as well as search-and-rescue and defense of the rails. The show centers on Manabu Yuuki, the latest recruit into the SDF, who aspires to live up to the reputations of his father and older brother, both of whom gave their lives in the line of duty. He finds himself assigned to Sirius Platoon, the same one commanded by his father, alongside fellow rookie and fairly obvious romantic foil Louis Fort Drake. (No, that’s not a spelling mistake, and yes it probably should have been “Louise.”) Their commanding officer is Captain Schwanhelt Bulge (the first of three truly unfortunate names in the series that suggest porn stars rather than science fiction) and their new home is the space locomotive Big One (there’s the second one). The platoon is rounded out by the harsh senior officer Bruce, the much kindlier and mischievous junior officer David, and the medical sexaroid Yuki (there’s the third, and no, they don’t explain the designation other than to make her the designated fan service character).
Serialized fiction can take its time to develop its ideas and plots, and Galaxy Railways takes advantage of this to the full. The 26-episode show is dominated by Manabu’s coming-of-age story as he grows from a green rookie to a more seasoned Railways officer. Newcomers should be aware that the show takes its time getting from start to finish, since Manabu isn’t even a teenager in the first episode and only dons the SDF uniform in the closing credits of the second. He changes in small and subtle ways from a rash, impulsive, and naive boy to a more self-assured, thoughtful, and practical man at the end, without losing the idealism and sense of self-sacrifice that makes him an appealing character in the first place.
The series also makes sure to spotlight the other supporting cast members on the show, even if none of them manages to achieve much more depth than an archetype. Still, Matsumoto and the crew of Galaxy Railways do a commendable job of getting us to care about the primary cast, giving each of the Sirius Platoon members at least one spotlight episode to shine. It comes as no surprise to find heartbreak behind the overly dedicated Captain Bulge, or tragedy behind Bruce’s harsh demeanor. Yuki gains an interesting spin on the usual Pinocchio complex that afflicts many robot characters—rather than wishing she were a real live woman, she needs convincing that she has genuine value as an individual rather than as a replaceable component. Even the supporting cast get their moments in the sun, including the cool, hyper-competent, number-crunching outer space babes of Spica Platoon, and the arrogant, brash, and lovable psychotics of Vega Platoon. The only real disappointment is Layla Shula Destiny, the enigmatic leader of the SDF. We have to take the omnipotence she is credited with on faith, since she never seems to demonstrate an ability for anything other than making cryptic comments about fate and puzzling why she can’t see the future any more.
The real testament to the show’s character development starts with episode 19 (“Tranquility”), which slows down to send all three platoons on a vacation to a traditional Japanese spa. Although the episode is mostly played for comic relief (down to a self-parody of the show’s own elaborate pre-flight launch sequences), it doesn’t feel like it’s stalling for time or trolling for laughs, but more like an all-too-short vacation with old friends. It may seem frivolous, but its culmination of character development gives the remaining episodes of the show their emotional heft. When one character meets a sudden and surprising end, we are as shocked and saddened by the loss as the characters on the show, and are soon put on edge that everyone else in the cast may not be safe, either.
Unsurprisingly, the most interesting of the supporting cast is Louis Fort Drake, who could have been an annoying, hyper-critical know-it-all shrew. However, her A-type overachiever tendencies are nicely balanced by a palpable sense of compassion, and her backstory combines her natural non-conformity and a strong sense of fear to explain her personality in a sensible way. In the end, she comes off as a spunky but sweet big sister who doesn’t request or require any special treatment because of her gender, and we find we may even have more affection for her than for Manabu. She is one of the most assertive, appealing, and developed of Matsumoto’s leading ladies, and much of this can be credited to the fine vocal performances by Asami Sanada (Japanese) and Luci Christian (English). Romantic and competitive sparks fly when Louis and Manabu meet cute on the way to joining the SDF in episode 2, and even at that early stage, we expect that it will only be a matter of time before the two get together.
This leads to one of the minor criticisms of the series, however. The strong start of the first volume also tempts viewers with a larger, over-arching plot beyond Manabu’s coming-of-age, only to have all the plot lines stall for nearly three volumes. Many of the episodes on discs 2 through 4 can feel like filler, even if hindsight makes their purpose of character development more evident. The Manabu/Louis relationship seems to take far too long to get where we know it’s going, and its flowering seems less organic and more driven by time constraints. The show also seems to include an odd paranormal aspect, with one or two episodes per disc involving some strange supernatural element like a ghost train in episode 4 (“Eternity”), a memory-stealing imp in episode 9 (“Memory Gallery”), or the eponymous “Armored Goddess” of episode 17. There’s nothing wrong with mixing genres for novelty’s sake, and one gets used to these episodes fairly quickly, but the paranormal elements never really seem to mesh very well with the generally technological bent of the show.
All of the above might make Galaxy Railways seem like a bunch of talking and flashbacks, which couldn’t be farther from the truth. Old fans of Star Blazers will relish the animated comfort food of the giant turreted laser cannons on trains blazing away at giant space cruisers, while space fighter dogfights rage in the background. While it will probably not have enough of an adrenaline punch to satisfy the hardcore action junkies, the show also ensures a regular diet of tense hostage situations, anxiety-laden ticking clock scenarios, daring rescues, and ground-based gun battles in addition to the space combat. A subplot involving alien invaders runs quietly throughout the season (occasionally dropping out of sight entirely), exploding into the forefront for the extended conclusion of the show. This subplot often drives the most action-packed episodes of the show, starting with the debut episode and running up to the tense and claustrophobic “Life and Death” in episode 18 and the massive confrontations that form the climax of the show on the final disc.
The animation of the show is solid and functional, but it won’t win many awards for glitz or glamour. It seems to surprise a lot of people to learn that the show was made in 2003 and not in the 1980s. This is not meant to reflect poorly on the show as a whole, especially since Matsumoto’s distinctive flair in machine and character designs virtually defined that era of anime. Even so, there are a number of obviously recycled animation sequences, and the stiltedness that dominates many scenes in the show sometimes seems more rooted in budget constraints than any real aesthetic sensibility. The elaborate pre-flight check that launches Big One into the skies remains rousing throughout the series, but one can’t fail to notice that it also functions as a safe time-filler. Similarly, making Layla Shula Destiny seem distant and aloof from the rest of the characters in the show makes it far easier to endlessly recycle the same shots of her alone in a room, watching over the 3-D map of the Railways and shedding an emotional tear. Her telepathic abilities also means they never had to worry about reanimating her lip sync.
Still, the show is always quite watchable, and the voice acting is superb across the board in both English and Japanese. FUNimation has repackaged The Galaxy Railways into their Viridian Collection, which packs all six of the original DVDs into a beautifully engineered cardboard sleeve that is barely wider than a single DVD case. All the discs get FUNimation’s usual attention to detail, from the beautiful anamorphic presentation, the 5.1 Dolby Digital English soundtrack, the excellent subtitles and dubbed soundtrack, and the unfortunately unskippable trailer that runs when the DVD is first inserted. The extras for the series are also surprisingly good, even if they get sparser as the series progresses. Several Japanese extras are included, such as an interview with Matsumoto, scenes from the press conference announcing Galaxy Railways in Japan, and a film showing the Japanese cast recording an episode of the show. There are also a few commentary tracks by the English ADR directors and select cast members, which are meaty and enjoyable. Some discs also include “Mr. Stain in Junk Alley” shorts, which are thoroughly enjoyable CGI pantomimes.
Like Christopher Reeve in the first Superman movie, Galaxy Railways takes thoroughly old-fashioned values and sentiments and makes them seem fresh and original again by delivering them sincerely and without even a hint of a smirk. In fact, it seems like something of a waste of time to attempt to market this series to the current generation of anime fans. Its old-school charms don’t have the same flash as other currently popular series, and Leiji Matsumoto doesn’t seem to have the same name-brand cachet that creators like Studio CLAMP do. The real foreign audience for the show would seem to be found at comic book conventions, where the audience tends to be a little older and probably has fond memories of watching Star Blazers all those years ago. The growing steampunk community would also get a big kick out of the combination of Napoleonic-inspired uniforms next to skin-tight space babe jumpsuits, and giant steam gauges and levers powering atomic reactors to propel a giant locomotive through the stars. Galaxy Railways is a retro delight, and we can only hope to see Sirius Platoon again soon in the follow-up OVA movie and second season of the show.