I make a point of not really having “heroes” as such. For one, it’s a great way to be let down when they turn out to be Milkshake Duck. For another… being particularly creative, smart, funny, etc. doesn’t really make you a hero. Even someone like Dolly Parton, famously growing up poor, becoming wealthy through talent while remaining extremely down-to-earth and generous and kind and wholesome, isn’t a hero really. But I certainly can admire peoples’ talents or creations, and the inspiration they provided.
When I was a kid, the absolute coolest cartoon ever was Star Blazers, or Leiji Matsumoto’s Space Battleship Yamato. It’s more than a little weird and unlikely, and frankly a poor military design, for a literal ocean-going battleship to be converted to a spaceship — but making the metaphor literal worked extremely well in the anime medium. That ship itself I’m sure had more cultural residence for Japanese people of the time than an American kid who, at that age, probably couldn’t have found Japan on a map. But even without that, it made points immediately just with its looks; it pushes nostalgia buttons, and it ties the story in with Odysseus and other mythic voyagers. Not just the spaceship design, but the look of the characters and costumes and technology, were all very well thought out.
At the end of each Yamato episode, the audience was reminded how many days the crew had to return to Earth before it was lost to environmental catastrophe. Okay, we know that’s not how environmental catastrophe works, but it was an extremely effective story device. Dread and suspense were ramped up right at the end of each episode — often right after a thrilling victory or narrow escape, making me wonder whether it was the first instance of mood whiplash in anime. It certainly made me eager to see the next episode. I was reminded of the device when I watched The Ring and it had a similar countdown.
If diesel ships in space is odd, sailing ships is odder, and steam trains in space is just completely bizarre. But Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999 just worked. As did the funky guitar-shaped ship of Interstella 5555, but honestly that was more about the character designs. (There’s even a whole extended scene where the Crescendolls, the visual stand-in for Daft Punk, are put through this whole industrial process disguising their alien bodies as human pop stars, a sort of high-tech dressup as if they were actual dolls.)
The DVD of Interstella 5555 opens with excerpts from an interview with Matsumoto, where he is quoted “musicians are magicians, that’s what I always say.” I took that to heart, but also… it takes one to know one.