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Buried Treasure
Night on the Galactic Railroad

by Justin Sevakis,

Night on the Galactic Railroad

Night on the Galactic Railroad is as much of an enigma as I can imagine any anime has been. It's based on a children's story, but is so dense with mood and symbolism that I doubt any kid would really get the point. It's designs are simplistic, almost to the point of crude, but upon closer inspection it's one of the most beautifully and painstakingly rendered films ever created. It's based on a well-loved (albeit unfinished) novel from the 1920's, but feels more modern that most of today's fantasy constructs. It feels nostalgic and antique, yet is the inspiration for Leiji Matsumoto's Galaxy Express 999. The story is one that every Japanese student must read at some point, but is relatively unknown elsewhere. It's slow and lyrical, but for those who are patient and introspective, it's one of the most deeply moving and compelling stories ever put to animation.

We meet the protagonist, a young boy named Giovanni, as he's dozing off in class. The teacher is in the middle of an astronomy lesson. As he is startled awake by being called on, we notice his classmates are teasing him fairly mercilessly.

After school, he goes directly to work, a slow and frustrating job setting type for a printing press. After that, the supermarket, then home. His mother is sick, we learn, and his father is away on a hunting expedition, and has not returned on schedule. It's a tough life, no doubt about it. But there's one boy that doesn't seem to regard him with malice. It's his classmate Campanella, whom he hopes to run into that night at the festival.

But on the way, he must run an errand. Exhausted from the day, both physically and emotionally, he lays down in the woods for a minute... and that's when a gigantic steam engine pulls up in front of him. Fascinated, he climbs onboard. Once inside, he's quickly joined by his friend Campanella, and excitedly, they start on a journey through the stars, stopping every once in a while to look around.

Each stop is more surreal than the next. In one town, an archaeologist shares his findings with the boys. In another, a bird catcher pulls herons and cranes by the sackload, only to deliver them to his customers as candy. The wireless operator picks up a static-filled transmission of the hymn, "Nearer My God, To Thee." Shortly after, they're joined by three young victims from the Titanic.

It's a beautiful journey, albeit an ominous one. Slowly, the mood of the trek shifts from excited and childlike to desperate and profound. We slowly realize what the train is, and why they're there.

The animated adaptation was directed by Gisaburo Sugii, an anime veteran from the Astroboy days, and whose filmography includes everything from Street Fighter II (movie and TV) to the Lament of the Lamb OAV's. Contributors to the film include some real artistic all-stars, including Harumi Hosono, who collaborated with Ryuichi Sakamoto in the progressive electronic band Yellow Magic Orchestra (YMO) in the early 80's. Hosono's musical score is beautiful and evocative, playing electronically off of important classical selections, and doing much to enhance the chilling concept of the eternal. The screenplay adaptation was supplied by famous playwright Minoru Betsuyaku. Adaptation could not have been easy, as the book is missing some key scenes, and four different drafts are known to exist.

The visual descriptions of the town in which the boys live, in the book, are beautiful and vivid, but daunting; full of freshly coined words describing things that don't exist. The film version fills in the interpretive cracks nicely. The obvious Italian names belie Miyazawa's obsession with new Western ideas and philosophies that were filtering into Japan at the time. His knowledge of these Western concepts of Christianity and Esperanto were those of an outsider studying another culture, and must have seemed other-worldly at a time when Japan was somewhat of a Western culture backwater. Sugii wisely adapted this feeling, combining it with Japanese tradition into a locale that looks something like a small Italian village that had been raised with Celtic Paganism. The torch-lit festival feels as exciting as such an outing could be to a wide-eyed kid. And that's to say nothing of the worlds beyond.

According to an interview with Sugii and Hiroshi Masumura (Translated by Benjamin Ettinger on his always excellent AniPages blog), most of these details came out of necessity. After countless stillborn attempts to adapt the film into anime, this one worked because nobody got stuck -- Masumura famously adapted nearly all of Miyazawa's stories to manga form, and in doing so had to deal with the limits of putting human faces on the characters. It didn't work; the story and its scope was limited by defining the characters so tangibly. Making them anthropomorphic worked perfectly, keeping reality at a distance. (They ended up chosing cats, despite - or perhaps because - Miyazawa hated them, explaining that they're just as selfish as humans.)

Added to the story by Betsuyaku is a blind wireless operator, who hears all of the misery in the world. Over the telegraph he decodes the hymn, “Nearer My God To Thee.” It's a quiet and somber appeal to be taken to heaven by the dying. The addition works because, according to Sugii, he saw the story's universe as one where Miyazawa was attempting to create his own cosmogany. The wireless device works as a communication with Earth, almost to the point of heralding when another passenger might arrive.

In the end, Night on the Galactic Railroad is not about suffering. It's not about losing loved ones, nor is it about an innocent's reaction to the cold realities of the world. Rather, it's about what Miyazawa made his life about: the endless pursuit of true happiness. In a sense, Giovanni gets a second chance at his own life after riding those rails, and a stunning sense of purpose. One hopes the viewer will feel the same.

I've recently come across information that the film was dubbed into English and given a small theatrical release in the States in the late 80's. However, information is scarce and I've been unable to dig up any solid data, or even a confirmation that it happened. At any rate, Central Park Media released a subtitled VHS version in 1995, then a bilingual DVD in 2001. I was new at CPM during the production of the dub, and was honored to be able to be able to take part in the DVD. My scant contribution was a poorly researched essay on the disc. (To my dismay, an early draft was accidentally used, although I don't think it would've made a big difference.) CPM's DVD box is simply amazing – far better than the R2, which is especially impressive since they were working with only a handful of grainy 35mm slides for artwork. I like to think my enthusiasm for this title might have rubbed off on some of my coworkers, though I likely was just annoying them at this point.

The dub deserves special mention. It's directed by Arlen Tarlofsky, a New York area audio post director who hasn't done any anime work besides what he did for CPM, though he turned in a number of their better dubs. Night on the Galactic Railroad is one of them, and the evocative performances from Veronica Taylor and Crispin Freeman are just as nuanced and spellbinding as the original Japanese – and that's saying quite a bit. (They went a little overboard by filling silence with subtle breathing sounds, which unfortunately makes Giovanni sound asthmatic.) I only met Arlen once, and I must confess that I couldn't get much of a read on the guy. (Granted, I met him while he was working on Angel Sanctuary, which would have made any auteur die a little.) I imagine he sensed he was working on something special. Voice actor and proud otaku Crispin Freeman volunteered enthusiastically to adapt the old subtitle script (by Pamela and Jay Parks) to dub dialogue, but ended up leaving most of the script untouched. While most CPM dubs of this era stuck a little too slavishly to the raw translation, it was for the best in this case. Somehow, that original translation was so poetic that it was hard to improve on.

Unfortunately, the DVD used the same old analog transfer as the 80's Japanese LD, and it looks quite soft and washed out by today's standards, to the point where the authoring house was worried that it wouldn't compress well. (The compression is fine.) The disc is now out of print, sadly, as CPM was not able to renew their license. The Region 2 (released a few years later by Asmik and Asahi Shinbun – yes, the newspaper) sports a gorgeous new anamorphic transfer and 5.1 mix, but unfortunately, no English.

I also highly recommend the original book. Several English translations are available, albeit hard to find. The most readily available version, “Milky Way Railroad” (translated by Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud and published by Stone Bridge Press) is by far the worst, and should be avoided. The translators condescendingly explain in their foreword that they adapted the story to make Giovanni and Campanella Japanese (and even gave them arbitrary Japanese names!) because they thought readers would be confused by a Japanese book that doesn't take place in Japan. Comments like those indicate they never really understood the story in the first place. Sarah M. Strong's translation (Night on the Milky Way Railway, published by M.E. Sharp) includes a reader's guide, and has been highly recommended to me, though it's quite expensive. I've also read John Bester's collection of other Kenji Miyazawa short stories, “Once and Forever,” which I absolutely adore. His translation of this story is called “Night Train to the Stars and Other Stories,” and includes a few other works. They're harder to find, as they're Japanese imprints (Kodansha), and they appear to be out of print. I'm told the Roger Pulvers version is good as well, (Night on the Milky Way Train, published by Chikuma) and can be had quite cheaply (¥700) from Amazon Japan.

Further reading about Miyazawa can be done at The World of Kenji Miyazawa.

A Abundant. Available anywhere that carries anime.
C Common. In print, and always available online.
R1 US release out of print, still in stock most places.
R2 US release out of print, not easy to find.
R3 Import only, but it has English on it.
R4 Import only. Fansubs commonly available.
R5 Import only, and out of print. Fansubs might be out there.
R6 Import long out of print. No fansubs are known to exist.
R7 Very rare. Limited import release or aired on TV with no video release. No fansubs known to exist.
R8 Never been on the market. Almost impossible to obtain.
Adapted from Soviet-Awards.com.

Where to get it:
As you can probably imagine, the US-released DVD is highly prized by the few who bought it. As of this writing, only two used copies are available on Amazon, both going for significantly more than the suggested retail price. I had much better luck finding a few random storefronts carrying the disc with Froogle. It's absolutely worth seeking out. If you don't need English and want the pretty new Japanese release, it's quite in print. (Catalog number AEBA-10101)

Screenshots ©1985 Asahi Group / Herald / Group TAC. All rights reserved.

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