Background: Technology causes people to adapt rather quickly and it's easy to forget how an inventions can alter entire civilizations almost overnight. One such invention was the steam engine as used in trains. It allowed for rapid transit of large numbers of people for the first time, opening up the so-called wide open spaces as well as huge markets in its wake not just in the USA but pretty much everywhere in modern society; lowering costs and increasing mobility. Just as Americans are fascinated by our cars, many used to hold the same endearment for the train (some still do) and in cultures where the automobile is too expensive, this still holds true. As such, numerous television shows and movies have used the train as the backdrop for all kinds of adventures, including our look today at The Galaxy Railways: Complete Boxed Set (AKA: Ginga Tetsudo Monogatari in Japan); a recent release on DVD that combines the individual volumes at a lower price point, further expanding the multiverse established by anime legend Leiji Matsomoto that many of us have grown up with, this time employing his interest in trains to augment his futuristic sagas.
Series: The Galaxy Railways was a single season series airing in Japan several years ago, featuring a small ensemble cast led by Manabu Yuuki; a hot shot cadet in the Space Defense Force (SDF). The futuristic universe is built on the premise that advanced means of space travel in the form of trains has helped spread humanity across the galaxy; opening up colonies and providing a network means of travel from one end to the other. As in all things, criminals develop ways to exploit the system, often in the form of space pirates or more traditional crooks, fostering the need for a law enforcement agency to protect travelers and the system itself. The SDF is a large organization that only takes the best and brightest cadets for this task, a combination of military and police that insure order against criminals as well as natural disasters, saving lives being their number one goal. The series began with Wataru Yuuki, a highly admired captain aboard the flagship train called Big One, saving the day by sacrificing his life to stop some aliens from attacking a passenger train. Ten years later, his sons set out on a similar path, Manabu as the youngest son following in the heroic steps of his dad and brother. Headstrong and brash, he holds dear to his father's ideals, throwing himself into danger to do the right thing with little thought about the consequences, earning him a few demerits and upset teammates who are more cautious in their actions.
The series unfolds slowly at first with most episodes providing stand alone plots that don't need to be viewed in order to understand the dynamics of the story. Most of the time, a disaster or criminal will strike and Manabu's team aboard Big One will be dispatched to save the day. The plot twists and turns usually involve making the mission much more perilous, some of the cast dying along the way in a far more realistic dramatic presentation than you will see in most such shows. Joining Manabu are his female friend Louise Drake (another newcomer to the force), grumpy partner Bruce, crewman David (a gentle giant who can always be counted on when the chips are down), Captain Bulge (who served under Manabu's father as his closest friend), and the ship medic, android Yuki. Together, they encounter numerous threats to be dealt with, each evolving slowly as the series progresses.
The crew encounters spatial anomalies that send them back in time, electromagnetic storms, supernatural creatures, and even a huge galactic invasion force from another dimension intent on wiping out the SDF and ruling humanity. Changes to the characters include how Manabu's distaste for weapons and killing change when he is faced with a foe that causes him to question what he holds dear, Yuki's initial vision of her place among the team, and even Louise's family heritage interfering in a mission. Along the way, the SDF's Supreme Commander, a woman with the ability to see limited bits of the future, is shown, always mysteriously on the fringes as she reminds herself that seeing the future doesn't allow her to alter the path of destiny.
The series ended with a larger arc of episodes that highlight both the need and the foolishness of large military chains of command with the alien armada breathing down the necks of the universe but there were numerous lighter moments too including a fanciful trip to a spa where the crews of a couple of SDF platoons relax during the calm times on an impromptu vacation long overdue for the hard working heroes. While each story had a moral or at least a message about friendship, honor, or duty, they were not so hard played as most series, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind about which path worked for them. Such is the case in most works by Leiji Matsomoto, one of the most admired creators in all of anime for years. I was pleased to see that all the original extras for the series were kept intact for the six disc set, providing a wealth of material for fans to enjoy repeatedly, unlike far too many releases by other companies that provide bare bones versions in exchange for the lower price point they are offered at. In that sense, the wonderfully appealing series earned every bit of the Highly Recommended rating I gave it, with the quality of the show forcing me to watch it all in two sittings last week. If you've ever liked crime drama, military, or futuristic shows that seem relatively realistic compared to some of the childish antics in anime, you'll like this one even more so pick up a copy today.
2) Knot In Time
3) Wheel Of Fate
6) Reason To Live, Pt 1
7) Reason To Live, Pt 2
8) Engine Song
9) Memory Gallery
11) Forget Me Not
13) Train Bound For Fate
15) Joint Forces
17) Armored Goddess
18) Life and Death
21) The Revolt
22) The Merciless Wind
23) The Cruel Verdict
24) Blazing Galaxy
25) Echoes of Life
26) Eternal Hope
Picture: The Galaxy Railways was presented in the original 1.78:1 ratio anamorphic widescreen as released in Japan for broadcast. The amount of black space on the screen initially concerned me as this is an area where anime and the DVD format have not always met with success but I saw few problems in that area with only minor edge enhancement going on or light moiré keeping it from being exceptionally good looking. The characters all looked like archetypal standards from the Leiji Matsomoto Universe so fans will appreciate the sense of familiarity they offer, the 2003 show looking almost like a cleaned up version of some of his older works, with updated CGI effects used relatively sparingly.
Sound: The audio was presented with the usual choices of the original 2.0 Japanese language track in Dolby Digital, a corresponding English language dub, or a remixed 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround track in English for home theatres. To me, the music was enhanced in the surround track as were the special effects, but the vocals did not seem to have a lot more headspace or separation in that track so your mileage may vary. I liked both the dub and the original language tracks though, even if there were some minor alterations in exactly what was said from time to time; indicating that different translations were used or the director had the voice cast use some limited discretion in making the words fit better.
Extras: The series thankfully was not stripped of the original extras, even coming in a large deluxe case to store the 6 volumes of the series. There were extensive interviews with Leiji Matsomoto, recording session features with the original cast, trailers, artwork, episodes of the wonderful Mr. Stain on Junk Alley, and a press conference by the creator and crew for Japanese fans (all the extras had English subtitles for the rest of us to enjoy though).
Final Thoughts: The Galaxy Railways: Complete Boxed Set was as good as my pal John Sinnott suggested when he looked at the individual volumes when they came out. The series offers up the wonders of space exploration with down home stories that anyone can relate to, bridging the gap between the usual anime loving crowd and fans of decent stories better than most shows in the field have been able to do as a series. I only wish copyright issues didn't keep the Space Cruiser Yamato series out of my hands, though the Americanized version of it is still near and dear to my heart from when it originally aired in the late 1970's. Still, as the 50th Anniversary tribute to the master of modern anime, The Galaxy Railways: Complete Boxed Set was a great set to pick up and enjoy for all ages.
If you enjoy anime, take a look at some of the recommendations by DVD Talk's twisted cast of reviewers in their Best Of Anime 2003, Best Of Anime 2004, Best of Anime 2005, and Best of Anime 2006 articles or their regular column Anime Talk.