By necessity, a journey involves “movement.” However, the act of moving from one place (or dimension or time) to another by itself does not constitute a journey. Characters in Dragon Ball Z travel across the Earth and even to other planets, but the more humble adventures of young Goku in Dragon Ball feel far fitting to be called “journeys.” The more the individual stops carry significance, the more a tale of travel becomes a journey. However, the longer each significant stop is, the less it becomes a journey as well.
The details of how a journey narrative unfolds—and the meanings carried by it—can come from what elements are in the characters’ control, and which ones aren’t. From this perspective, it is interesting to compare two of the greatest “journey anime”: Space Battleship and Galaxy Express 999.
Between these two series, we can see two major archetypes: the journey of necessity, and the journey of discovery. Both series are about reaching a destination and overcoming death (the Yamato flies to obtain a device that can save humanity from radiation, Tetsurou boards the Galaxy Express 999 to obtain an immortal robot body). However, Yamato’s journey is more about what imperils the heroes, while 999 is about discovering new worlds and seeing how life differs from place to place.
As a result, while both series don’t spend long amounts of time in any one location, the reasons for the brevity of their respective planetary locales are substantially different. Because the Yamato is in a race against time, there is a constant sense of urgency. They’re being pursued by the enemy, all while the fate of the human race rests in their hands. How long they stay anywhere depends on how long it takes them to get out.
In contrast, the length of each stop for the 999 is determined by the day cycle of a planet. This provides both narrative variety and something to chew on (e.g. what does it mean to live day to day on a planet where days are only a few hours?), but in terms of the mechanics, it essentially means that the characters’ schedules, the amount of time they spend on each planet, is dictated by the 999.
In Yamato, the characters must pull their vessel along, and the length of stay is their responsibility. In 999, the characters are pulled along, and their responsibility is doing as much as they can within a time frame. These differences transform the similar developments that the protagonists of each anime go through. By the time both Kodai and Tetsurou emerge from their journeys, they are wiser and more mature, but the former reaches adulthood through constant conflict, while the latter achieves the same through experiencing new perspectives.
Between the journey of necessity and the journey of discovery is the journey where discovery is necessary, but when I try to think of examples the first thing that pops into my head is ironically not really an anime that takes its viewers on a journey at all. Instead, what comes to mind is the series Mahoromatic, which is about a former military robot that becomes a maid in order to spend the rest of her short remaining life atoning for her previous role. Much like Yamato, each episode ends with a count of the days Mahoro has left. Despite Mahoromatic mostly revolving around a static home and environment, Mahoro’s desire to discover what it’s like to live as a human as her life winds down conjures up the well-worn cliché that “life is a journey.”
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