Reviewby Gabriella Ekens,
Night on the Galactic Railroad
Giovanni is a poor boy who spends all of his free time caring for his sick mother. As a result, he's bullied in school. His only friend is the kind and intelligent Campanella. One day, after learning about the Milky Way galaxy in school, Giovanni returns home sadly. His father has been on an indefinite length of absence, and his responsibilities at home prevent him from attending the yearly star festival. But that night, as Giovanni takes a brief moment of respite, he and Campanella are swept away on a magical train through the cosmos – the Galactic Railroad. Over the course of their journey, the friends encounter all sorts of wondrous sights, like a riverbed of jewels, several different versions of the afterlife, and the fiery constellation Scorpio. But as the train approaches its destination, what will happen to the boys? Will they ever make it home? And what if the heavens have different plans for the both of them?
Night on the Galactic Railroad is an adaptation of a popular Japanese children's book. A fantasy novel from 1934, its closest parallels in the Western canon are probably The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, and The Little Prince. Like those works, Night on the Galactic Railroad follows children as they go on surreal, metaphysical journeys through the cosmos. These works seek to impart a sense of wonder and curiosity onto an important point in a child's life – the age when they start to develop an awareness of a wider world and their own place in it. That's not to say that this film is only for children. Like its aforementioned literary cousins, Night on the Galactic Railroad serves as a medium through which the author, Kenji Miyazawa, works out the kinks between his religious faith (Nichiren Buddhism) and personal worldview. As such, it also functions as a fascinating view into how a person coalesces the many discordant, often tragic parts of his life into a kind, ultimately optimistic story about acceptance. Beyond that, it's just a gorgeous film – a passion project by a number of Japanese creators who, while never headliners in and of themselves, nevertheless have had a role to play in the development of the medium.
First, a little bit about the source material. Kenji Miyazawa is an acclaimed Japanese poet and children's author. He died in 1933 at the age of 37, several years after completing Night on the Galactic Railroad. It was published posthumously, having been discovered in his journals. Since his death, he's become something of an icon in Japan. He's renowned for his kindness (particularly towards children), sensitivity, and attraction to utopian projects. He worked as a schoolteacher for poor children and tried to provide cultural education to impoverished farmers. Night on the Galactic Railroad reflects these idealistic preoccupations, as well as tragedy in Miyazawa's own life. His sister died several years prior, and the loss resounds his novel. This film of particular importance to Miyazawa's legacy. Although his works have been adapted into anime many times, and they tend to follow this film's style. For example, the decision to make the characters anthropomorphic cats originates here, but was picked up by subsequent adaptations – most notably Spring and Chaos, Miyazawa's biopic.
Giovanni and Campanella's journey is essentially an exploration of the afterlife. Over the course of this journey, they confront different forms of joy and sorrow, and reach a conclusion regarding the meaning of existence. This is exemplified in the speech regarding Scorpion Fire. Essentially, true transcendent happiness can be achieved through the act of sacrificing oneself for others. This theme resounds throughout much anime (perhaps because the novel is commonly taught in elementary school). This is a kind, humanist worldview that also manages to encompass the darker aspects of life. It's a useful story for children, who may be encountering loss for the first time. It's also worthwhile for adults, who may desire a return to youthful innocence and holism.
This film feels older than it is. Tonally, it's closest to something like Heidi, Girl of the Alps – gentle children's entertainment that also appeals to adults for its atmosphere and artistry. And this film has no shortage of artistry. More than many other anime I've seen, it resembles a moving illustration, all sloping curves and soft, pastel tones. The director, Gisaboro Sugii, has done a lot of work, but not much of it is still commonly watched at present. A lot of it, however, is famed for its artistry and experimentation. He was animation director for The Belladonna of Sadness and did animation for Osamu Tezuka's Cleopatra. Artistically, Night on the Galactic Railroad stands out for some fantastically uncanny landscapes. A river flowing through a structure made out of the spinal columns of some enormous, unknown creatures feels more comfortable than scenes from the main characters' home town. Quite a bit of its imagery has also become iconic. Galaxy Express 999's “train through the cosmos” was inspired by Miyazawa's book. Kunihiko Ikuhara, meanwhile, borrows much of the film's symbolism for his 2011 series, Mawaru Penguindrum. Since Night on the Galactic Railroad isn't the most well-known film, its pervasive legacy is often overlooked.
The screenplay is by Minoru Betsuyaku, a renowned experimental playwright. The dialogue is largely lifted from Miyazawa's novel, although some scenes are invented. It's a very short novel, so this was most likely for the sake of time. Overall though, the added moments – the childrens' sojourn through an empty, dilapidated town, as well as the aforementioned spine cave – largely enhance the experience. The tone is a mixture of the uncanny and the familiar. Strange foreign vistas are presented as sites of wonder and adventure. Home, in contrast, is an ominous space, a site of potential tragedy (that does manifest.) By the end of the film, Giovanni has learned to appreciate life as it is, while also recognizing that it is fleeting.
In terms of extras, the big draw is a commentary track featuring Justin Sevakis and Mike Toole. Both are informed viewers who provide valuable information regarding Night on the Galactic Railroad's history, production, and content. Since information about this film in English is distributed over a variety of disparate webpages, this is likely the most convenient way to learn about it. This release contains both a subbed version and the 2001 Central Park Media dub. It's listenable, although the main actors, Veronica Taylor (Giovanni) and Crispin Freeman (Campanella) are at times unconvincing as children. The HD remaster looks great – the 2001 DVD release was rather dark and blurry, while this one is crisp and bright. This is the best the film has ever looked for home viewing.
Night on the Galactic Railroad is old-school fantasy, filled with gentle platitudes and a general sense of wonderment towards the world. As children's entertainment, however, it prompts the question – would kids today even enjoy this? It's gently paced, largely eerie, and not funny at all. It doesn't at all fit into the perception of children's entertainment as rapid-fire, slapstick, and oppressively cheery. Is there any point in showing this to its initial intended audience? On the other hand, there's an argument to be made that works like Night on the Galactic Railroad have never really gone away. It has more than a little in common with Ponyo, Hayao Miyazaki's lavishly-animated environmental lecture for five-year-olds. That was a hit. Kids continue to read The Chronicles of Narnia, A Wrinkle in Time, The Little Prince, and, yes, Night on the Galactic Railroad. This film may not be for every child – especially the younger ones – but the ability to sit down, get enveloped in a work, and process complex emotions may be undervalued in today's youth. It might stick with them for the better.
Overall : A
Overall (dub) : A
Overall (sub) : A-
Story : A
Animation : B+
Art : A
Music : B+
+ A timeless, beautiful film for all audiences looking better than it ever has on home video, informative commentary track
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