Monday, December 31, 2007

Brilig and Slithy: A look at Galaxy Express 999 and Seirei no Moribito

Sorry that I've been absent for the last week or so, real life decided to rear its ugly head. I should be up and have my review all set by the end of the week. But that's not what this post is about.

I do have a confession to make though. I broke down and got BitTorrent, mostly because of iknight's post on Seirei no Moribito. Since I don't know if it'll ever get released here, I decided to download it. But then I got a great idea, I've wanted to watch Galaxy Express 999 since I first heard about it., so I found a torrent and downloaded that too. Now watching the two series at the same time leads to some interesting juxtapositions.

The thing is that they're both fantasies. Sure, you could say that 999 is really a space opera, but in the end the space opera is a lot closer to fantasy then it is to hard sci-fi. Let's face it, there are points where the kid rides around with the window open... in space... without getting sucked out. Unless we're talking about 50s pulp science fiction that stuff doesn't happen. (Unless you’re in Matsumoto land).

Now the defining characteristic about fantasy is the world. Generally it's one of the things that really pulls me into a good fantasy story - and I think both of these worlds work for completely different reasons.

The world of Seirei no Moribito is a pretty standard, somewhat Asian fantasy setting. By standard, I mean everything follows a set of rules. Now this ranges from the most basic (gravity works) to the most fantastic (there is a spirit world that has an effect on the 'real' world.) Granted, the world isn't quite as interactive as I could hope for, but overall it's an expected world. The average viewer isn't going to be jarred because things suddenly change. Chagum doesn't suddenly turn out to be as good of a fighter as Balsa. Even Balsa needed to practice to get as good as she is.

In fact, it's hard to really go on about it, because it is expected. Fantasy stories create a world, and the rules of that world remain consistent throughout the story.

But Galaxy Express 999 goes in the completely opposite direction. There are no hard and fast rules. For those people who aren't familiar with the series, the idea is that there is a boy - Tetsuro - who is trying to get to a planet where they give mechanical bodies away for free. So he can become a cyborg. He's accompanied by Maetel, a mysterious woman. (I kind of wish I could add in the mysterious sound effect there.)

In fact, there are only two rules in the whole of the show. The first one I'll call the rule of relationship. Basically, if there is a related item or event that should occur because of the setting then it will occur, no matter how ridiculous it might seem. For instance, they establish pretty early on that the 999 is run by an "ancient alien technology" (cue mysterious sound effect), which is cool. I mean the space train has to be run by something. So you'd figure that if it's run by an "ancient alien technology" that there'd be some really neat power source. Perhaps they've found a way to move away from fossil fuels and maybe it's running on nuclear power or something. So what does the space train run on?


Yes that's right, coal. Because of course a steam train would run on coal. I mean that makes perfect sense. There are a lot of those moments, like the fact that Tetsuro rides around with the window open... in space... and his hair gets ruffled by the wind. I mean WTF? But in the end, it's because these things would be expected if you're riding a steam train on earth. So since they're related the space train would have to run on coal.

The second rule is the rule of dramatic expediency. Pretty early on the series establishes that cyborgs are close to indestructible. And Tetsuro is just a normal flesh and blood human. He doesn't have anything that makes him special, besides the fact that he's a Matsumoto hero, which gives him special powers. But only when it serves the story.

Still early in the series, Tetsuro gets into a fight with some cyborgs in which he wastes them all. Now there's really isn't any time wasted explaining how a twelve-year-old kid can suddenly handle a gun well enough to kill, but I was okay with it. But then when the last cyborg is begging for his life, he destroys its head with the butt of the rifle.

And what's worse is that he does it in one swing. Why? Because it's dramatically expedient to do so. He doesn't need to train, or be enhanced to be super strong. And in fact later on he can't even break out of the grasp of another cyborg because again, it's dramatically expedient.

But all of that said, the series works. I know, I just spent a whole bunch of time punching holes in it, but it really does work. Now, I'll admit. I'm a bit of a Matsumoto fan. Not to the level of saying that his stuff is the best stuff and no one's ever done better stuff, but mostly to the point where I'll forgive him his more egregious sins.

But it's more than that- it's the fact that he doesn't try to explain himself. We don't get long drawn out reasons why there's coal on the space train. Either you accept that there's coal there, or you don't. We never find out why Tetsuro has super powers occasionally. We either accept it or we don't.

That's what makes the show work. Is the fact that it doesn't try to justify itself. It just throws out these ridiculous situations and says, "Well there it is." In fact, the only way I can think to describe it is - what if Lewis Carroll wrote space opera?

And I suppose that's enough for me to enjoy the series.


Iknight said...

Ah, another weakling lured to the BitTorrent Dark Side. Mwa ha ha ha.

Galaxy Express 999 sounds interesting, as though it's built around what we want to see, rather than what makes sense to us. Because of course it's cooler to fly through space with the train window down, and the (solar?) wind ruffling your hair . . .

CCY said...

Mm, welcome to the fansub realm. (Is that so much of a dark side?) I'm a direct-download person myself, but that's because my internet connection is pretty slow.

I can't say much about either of these two shows, to be honest, but the disdain GE999 (never watched it, saw the manga in the library before) apparently shows for physics is pretty amusing. Trains running on stuff a vacuum...with some guy's sticking his head out the window with the wind blowing his hair around. I love it.

A question, though; does it feel tongue-in-cheek (i.e. it knows it's breaking the rules) at all in how it disregards logic, or does it just kind of ignore it? It sounds like it'd be interesting if it was the former.

Cameron Probert said...

iknight - Yeah, I gave in. I'm trying to be ethical about it. It's tough. The only new things I've downloaded are Blood + and Seirei no Moribito, neither of which have a DVD release. But I'll probably slide further as the new stuff starts coming out.

ccy - It's hard to tell whether it's tongue-in-cheek or if it's just there. Matsumoto's stuff is really pulpy. So, it might just be the nature of the beast. And it doesn't make any self-referential jokes about it, so I'd have to assume that it just does it.