Thursday, June 12, 2008

Music For A Space Train

WARNING: If you don't already think I'm a dork, you will after this entry.
Anyone who has ever seen a minute or two from Avatar: The Last Airbender or Naruto will know that Japanese animation has a distinct look. Those who go back far enough to have seen Voltron will know that a little better. If you remember Battle of the Planets or saw the first run of Speed Racer, you know that even more better. Japanese people and American comic book hounds call this stuff anime. But in 1977, a Japanese comic book artist named Leiji Matsumoto let loose with a movie version of the TV show he had spawned with a long-running comic book series called Galaxy Express 999, and it was the first anime I had ever seen while I was old enough to think, and I don't think it's too much poetry to say it changed me.
Again, my mother's fault. My dad had come across a betamax copy of Star Wars (this was before it was Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope) and instantly regretted it because, from then on, I watched it seven times a day for several years. In what I suspect was an effort to wean me onto something anything else, my mother sat me down one day in front of Showcase (the forerunner to HBO for those of you who thought HBO was the forerunner), and said, "Here's a new cartoon, it looks interesting!"
It was. It's the story of an orphan named Joey Hannacannabobbakannana Smith, whose mother was killed for sport by the evil Count Mecha, who is (wait for it) a machine person. A mysterious woman named Maetel appears and gives him a ticket to the famed Galaxy Express (which is a steam train that travels through space, naturally) so he can get a machine body in order to better take on the Count. Along the way he meets up with a space Swede named Olaf, a potato-looking gunslinger named Sundown McMoon, and legendary space pirates Captain Warlock and Queen Emereldas. And he also sees that becoming a machine saps your humanity, much to the later chagrin (and eventual destruction) of the entire machine factory planet. This was animation, but not like ours; people got naked, bled, and died (not always in that order), and a twelve-year-old kid with a cosmo pistol was more than enough bodyguard for anyone. My mother instantly regretted sitting me down in front of this movie because, from then on, I alternated Galaxy Express and Star Wars seven times a day for several years.
I was in high school when Japanese animation finally hit our shores with enough force to stick. Suddenly Blockbuster had an anime section, and it was then that I learned that each English-dubbed version of an anime had an original Japanese counterpart, and that they were not always alike. For example, Joey's actual name was just Tetsuro, and they just used that long and silly name to cover up some vile things he said that they didn't want to translate. Olaf was definitely not Swedish (nor was his name Olaf), Sundown's name was Tochiro, and he didn't actually die of what the English version called "an incurable space disease," and Captain Harlock most definitely did not talk like John Wayne. Several characters changed the plot slightly by saying completely different things, a few characters got clipped unfairly, and what I think is the climax of the entire film got scrapped altogether.
One thing that was the same in both versions was the music. Composed by a guy named Nozomu Aoki, this was like no cartoon score I'd ever heard. Sure, with the benefit of 30 years of hindsight, some of it sounds like the Love Boat, but aside from the bongos and the jazzy trumpets, this stuff is fantastic. Tetsuro's lone cello motif is adventurous and tragic at the same time, Maetel's high violin hints at a past Tetsuro can never quite regain, and Harlock's battle march is cheesy enough for a pirate who steers his spaceship with an outboard boat wheel and still somehow you can't stop humming it. Most people know that John Williams uses something called leitmotif to describe movie characters with musical themes, but Aoki also uses it to describe places; several cues will pass in one location before you realize it's all been the same theme, but orchestrated differently; for example, in Count Mecha's Time Castle (ain't sci-fi great?) the same slow creepy music that underscores Tetsuro's infiltration later becomes the pizzicato rhythm during their shootout, and also the off-kilter violin background for a certain character's tremulous suicide march.
The music is the reason I'm bothering to bother you all with any of this. You see, I'm a big fan of film scores, and after searching for this one for most of my life (first on record, then on cassette, and now on CD), I have finally found it. I'm listening to it right now. I doubt that any of you have seen this movie (with the exception of L.M., who has seen it enough for all of you). And even if a few of you have, I doubt you remember the music. But if there's even one of you that does and wants to know where to get it, after decades, I can finally tell you where.


Blogger AkuTyger said...

Yes, definitely a dork. But in a good way. Some of my best friends would completely understand this post and nod their heads and actually ask you where you got the film score.

2:40 PM  
Blogger Pilot said...


6:26 PM  
Blogger Aviatrix said...

Your mother must be relieved at how well you turned out, after all.

8:01 PM  
Anonymous sandtalker said...

For some reason, I am not surprised that someone who can tell me exactly where the storm trooper knocks himself out is obsessed with a soundtrack.

8:16 PM  
Blogger amulbunny said...

You can sit in front of your big screen TV with my almost 21 year old who has 400 gigs of anime. He searches it out when he's not pulling freight for EL AL or Virgin Atlantic. Do you know how much I can't stand anime or manga? Add to that the 3 swords he got in SFO and his costume for the anime convention this july. I thought my Star Wars obsession was bad 30 years ago, but you guys make me look like a rookie. And I had it on Betamax too!


8:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have I mentioned how cool it is that your Mom reads your blog? Most people would freak if their Mom's stumbled across their blogs.

10:03 AM  
Blogger THAT Girl said...

That movie and the man eating bunny scene from Holy Grail completely screwed up my 8 year old world, but in a good way.

10:14 PM  

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