Journey to the Stars – 999 Collection at Suginami

Though some say Akira or even Ghost in the Shell were the first anime to cross over or hit it big in America, truth be told it was actually Battle Cruiser Yamato, back in 1978. Legend has it that it premiered at a sci-fi con in San Fransisco around 4am, originally scheduled to play at 2m, but bumped due to a reshowing of Star Wars at the behest of rabid fan boys. OK… the rabid fan boys part might not be science fact. But nonetheless, despite the insane hour of the time slot and two showings of monumental space epic Start Wars, Battle Cruiser Yamato still had the theater packed – people standing in the aisles, crowding in the back, and waiting in line hovering around doorways in case someone left the theater.

This is of course only legend.

It would seem that most English speaking anime fans of today (at least in America, which is all I can speak for) aren’t too familiar with Leiji Matsumoto, creator of Yamato, Queen Emeraldas, Captian Harlock, Interstalla 5555, and Galaxy Express 999. But in addition to this first “one small step” for the anime industry in America, it’s impossible not to notice the impact of Leiji Matsumoto and his characters in modern day Japan. A special futuristic boat designed by Matsumoto, complete with 999 character tour guides, rides along the Sumida River from Asakusa to Odaiba. An auto repair shop in my old neighborhood was called “Yamato” and their sign board featured both the battle cruiser and characters from the series. In early 2006, clips of 999 were used in commercials for the beverage Dakara. And a 999 themed pachinko / slot machine series was released a few months ago. The 999 series which originally aired in 1977 has been remade at least 5 times, and now even has a limited edition DVD box set release.

Though it’s redundant to say at this point, people love this bildugsroman of a young boy traveling across the galaxy in an antique-styled locomotive in search of hope and humanity, vested in an elusive mechanical body, together with his beautiful and mysterious traveling companion. A celebration of the 30th anniversary of this series is currently being held at the Suginami Anime Museum. It opened May 27th, and will continue until August 24.

The Suginami Museum is a free museum. It resides on the 3rd and 4th floor of a huge building on a back alley street across from a shrine, and doesn’t really seem like the right place at first. Despite this confusing facade, the museum itself is actually very cool – and even better when considering the price. Comparing it to the Ghibli Museum, which is huge and fantastical but designed in theory to be an incredibly interactive experience, Suginami really takes the cake. There are quite a few activities for visitors to engage in that replicate the animation process and that cater to all age groups. These include an “after recording” session – in which you can dub over a Black Jack animated sequence as if you were a voice actor and then hear it played back – and a sketch room, this time filled with tracing cards of 999 characters and scenes for those not so artistically inclined. Desks of various famous illustrators are remade for your amusement, complete with figure collections and various degrees of mess. However, the best part is easily the user friendly manga and anime library annex, which includes a nice cross section, and on this particular day was filled with kids on their way “home” from school.

The special exhibit portions of the museum were the only places you couldn’t photograph, and included many original cells from memorable scenes. Just in case you couldn’t remember, they were all labeled with their respective episode number and title. Character design sheets were also presented, along with the various notes for quintessential character composite points. It was interesting to note that Maetel’s sheet had a very big section dedicated to an eye, along with explanations of all the locations and sizes of white dots to give Maetel her signature twinkle. Other characters also had eye legends, though not nearly as intricate.

The on-site theater mixed episodes of the original 999 series in with other animated works, and on that particular day Batsu and Maru watched the two-part Illusion of the Big Four and a Half Mat Room Planet, episodes 60 and 61. However, on the 9th and 10th of August a special 3D CG animated Galaxy Express 999 movie will be playing, and a few other special theater events, along with guest speakers and workshops, have been going on throughout the exhibit.

A commemorative photo opportunity with Maetel and Tetusuro inside the 999 was also very cool. However, Tetsuro was at least three times the size of Maetel – technically, this should have been reversed… or the same amount of mass with different proportions. The Queen Emeraldas floating across the star scape through the window sort of compensated. A special stamp rally was also in effect, and collecting all of the character stamps placed at various locations around the museum resulted in a sticker prize.

Overall, though rather small, the exhibit was very well done, especially if you consider that the visit doesn’t cost a thing. The museum, too, had a rare charm; it wasn’t too showy but still contained a wealth of information. I think I’ll be stepping into the anime annex on my “way home from school” pretty soon, too.

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