It always saddens me just a bit when I discover something only a few people have even heard of, let alone seen but which deserves a bigger audience.
I’ll admit that does happen to me quite a bit because I have put a bit of effort into finding little seen movies, but it seems particularly strange when you find it in what seems like a heavily explored region of the film universe.
After all, we’re talking about an anime film which came out two years after Nausicaa of the Valley of the Winds, and two years before Akira — a film which was directed by Manga legend Osamu Tezuka and based on several of his own stories.
And, I will point out that Tezuka’s animated film, Space Firebird 2772 (1980), based on his epic Phoenix saga, is reasonably well known even if it parts of it look a generation older than the new wave of Anime that Katsuhiro Otomo and Hiyao Miyazaki were about to usher in.
Instead, in Galaxy Investigation 2100: Border Planet we have a very modern and mature story, which avoids engaging in some of Tezuka’s more absurd humor (well…most of the time), and has a lovely and very serious wordless tour de force of an opening.
I suspect that part of the reason this film is not as well-known is because it was a TV movie. Tezuka productions was heavily into TV at the time, and not just with all their various animated series. Among their other projects they also animated nine TV specials for Nippon TV’s 24 hour series, including one I’ve reviewed elsewhere, Fumoon.
Nor, I suppose, does it help that some people do seem to think that his output was a bit out of date in the Eighties.
Border Planet starts out with a beautiful, wordless montage sequence about three children — two boys and a girl — and their inseparable friendship. To a slow and elegant classical theme, we watch them grow up together, becoming so close that their bond survives even after both young men fall in love with the girl, Mira, and she chooses one of the two.
But then, on Mira’s wedding night, a mysterious spaceship which does not appear to have anyone on board lands, and they call in her new husband to unlock its main door.
Unfortunately, the crew was killed by a horrific virus which literally dissolves human flesh, and he dies of the same disease not long after he arrives home. Even worse, his new wife may be infected as well.
So Subaru, the young man she didn’t marry, goes off on a mission to the stars to trace the flight of the mysterious exploration ship and find out where the virus came from, in the hopes that this will enable them to find a cure.
However, as Mira only has hours to live, she is frozen and kept safe, while Subaru goes out and searches the galaxy…
Galaxy Investigation 2100: Border Planet is essentially an anthology film, as Subaru goes to one planet after another in search of the original virus, and encounters a deserted research station; a planet no one is allowed to leave; and a hidden biological research lab which holds a deadly secret. Tezuka patterned the story on Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, and the stories are essentially independent, linked only by Subaru’s quest.
The individual stories are quite strong, moving from horror to action, mystery and even a bit of comedy. The middle story is the weakest of the three as the stranded Earthlings on a harsh desert planet are played by members of Tezuka’s collection of stock characters (yes, even Astro Boy!). They feel decidedly out of place in a movie featuring more realistic human characters: in his earlier work, Tezuka used broadly drawn bigfoot-style cartoon characters to tell often dark and complex stories, while in his more mature work he moved away from the broader comedy and into a more realistic style. I’ve seen many of these characters integrated into his other more serious movies, but you get the feeling that he’s engaging in a bit of fan service on the one hand, and isolating them in a more comic story on the other. For the most part it isn’t too jarring, but the weird little candle that appears above Acetylene Lamp’s head is decidedly unreal, particularly as it appears and disappears at times.
Far more important is that the overarching story — of the virus, Mira’s plight and Subaru’s quest — is a beautiful and thought-provoking story which gives us an ending which is bittersweet yet a happy one for all the major players.
Now I need to point out that Tezuka, despite his credit, never directed any of these films in the usual sense of the word. He controlled all those productions and paid a lot of attention to detail, but didn’t do the job the traditional way. You have to remember that during the time he was working hardest on animated films, he was also turning out manga on a regular basis. You have to wonder how one man could do so much!
The animation here is impressive, with a lot of detail and a fair amount of hardware, back when it all had to be animated by hand. There is a standout tour de force of a shot at the beginning of Subaru’s first journey, as a hollow spaceship passes the camera from behind, surrounding us on all sides as it flies past — and then, a moment later, a second ship’s open central core flies around us right behind the first ship.
I’m mildly surprised that this appeared on TV as there is a lot of gore and violence and even a rather chaste moment of frontal female nudity. However, it is an excellent story, told well.
Now if he’d only left his legacy characters out for once, this would have been a classic.