I might once have described Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad as Japan's answer to The Little Prince. It's not that the analogy is inaccurate, but that it might be alienating: The Little Prince has as many opponents as it does devotees, and many people find it cloying and precious instead of gently profound. Railroad is the product of the same kind of imagination, though — an attempt to take transcendent struggles and make them into a story that either a child of six or an adult of sixty can relate to. It is doubly so in Gisaburo Sugii's haunting and artful animated adaptation of the tale, available now in a Blu-ray Disc edition that showcases its merits all the more completely than a previous DVD edition did.
The best way to talk about Railroad might not be through analogies to Western works, but by way of its creator. Kenji Miyazawa, a polymath who died in 1933 at the age of 37, did not live to see Railroad published in his lifetime. A poet as well as an author of children's tales, his work was rescued from obscurity, and rewarded not just with accolades but cultural ubiquity. ("Strong In The Rain" is as well-known in Japan as "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night" is in English, and in my view the more optimistic of the two poems.)
Miyazawa's voluminous output was informed by the galaxy of interests he cultivated: agricultural science (which he taught as part of his day job), geology, astronomy, Western music, Buddhism, the synthetic language Esperanto. That last was emblematic of a streak of Utopianism that also ran through Miyazawa's work, if not always on the surface: the world we are given is the only world we have, but it is not the only world that is possible. Galactic Railroad is a fantasia about realizing one's place in the universe, by way of the mortality of both one's self and others.
Star track [sic]
The abstract details of Railroad stem most strongly, it seems, from Miyazawa's interests in astronomy and Buddhism. From the layman's outside view, the two two have no apparent overlap, but a closer look shows they share a great deal. The former looks outwards, the latter inwards, but in both we confront the enormity of the universe and the apparent inconsequentiality of our existences. The former teaches us how to construct a systematic understanding of our physical place in such a cosmos; the latter teaches the spiritual and psychological component of same. .
The story opens on the first of those two notes, as the young Giovanni and his friend Campanella endure a lecture from their teacher about the composition of the Milky Way. The idea that the glowing river of light they witness in the night sky is made of stars is haunting to Giovanni, but the reality of his surroundings demands far more of his attention. His mother is ill. He must work after school at the printing company in town, for what amounts to pocket change, while enduring the not-very-concealed sneers of his older coworkers. His classmates tease him about his father, a fisherman who's been arrested for poaching seals. The festival being held that evening in town (an analogue of Japan's own O-bon) holds little appeal for him no thanks to his duties. Even errands as simple as running out for milk are fraught with an uneasy gloom.
Sprawled out on his back in the grass outside of town, Giovanni's stargazing is interrupted by the arrival of a phantasmal train from the stars. On boarding it, Giovanni finds a familiar fellow passenger: his friend Campanella. Together, they ride the train through a slew of constellations, with colorful figures to be found at each stop — e.g., the old man who captures birds and turns them into flattened confections, or the archaeologists digging out a massive skeleton made of crystal. Eventually, a slew of passengers come on board who appear to be refugees from the sinking of the Titanic, and the meaning of the whole star trek becomes clear: This is the railroad to the afterlife, but it isn't Giovanni who's dead — it's his friend Campanella, who drowned during the lantern festival while Giovanni was on the hillside with his eyes to the sky.
The cosmic eye
A few things might come immediately to mind on reading that synopsis. First, any of you who flashed back to Galaxy Express 999 are spot-on: Leiji Matsumoto's epic work was indeed directly inspired by Miyazawa's story. That includes both the mystical under- and overtones of the story, as well as its peculiar internal rhythm. At many a stop, Giovanni and Campanella disembark and explore the area around the station, and their Aesopian-allegorical encounters with the locals play out much as they do in 999. Sometimes there's a lesson — e.g., the recounting of the mythology behind the constellation Scorpio — but just as often there's only the experience of encountering something mystic and lovely, as when the boys look out the window of the train and see the "fields of heaven" flashing past.
The other thing that might present itself is Miyazawa's choices of name and locale, a deliberate mix of Japan and elsewhere. In the endnotes to the excellent Sarah M. Strong translation/annotation of Railroad into English (sadly out of print), all of those elements — the Italian names, the non-Japanese cuisine but the very Japanese lantern festival — are ascribed to Miyazawa's need to make the story as open-ended and universal as possible. Japanese readers were meant to find many of those details just as disorienting as Western readers found others.
It's this second element, the feeling of strangeness-to-all, that seems to have been a fundamental building block of Sugii's animated adaptation of the story. For Japanese and Western audiences alike, it's an oddity — even those familiar with the story are greeted with a version of it that tries to be alien and new to them without being entirely off-putting. Sugii uses two main devices to accomplish this, one obvious and the other less so. First is the design and setting for the story; Giovanni's town seems patterned after the same kind of pan-European designs that Hayao Miyazaki used for Kiki's Delivery Service, but with a gloomy edge reminiscent of the work of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico. The look of it places it firmly in the tradition of works that can be for younger viewers, but are not obliged to be compulsively sunny.
Second is how Sugii chose to depict Giovanni, Campanella, and the other characters from their village as anthropomorphic cats. It's a curious device, but I don't think it's being used here as a way to appeal to self-conscious anime fans or anything like that. It's being used as a way to further enhance the neither-Occident-nor-Orient nature of the story, to give the characters a flavor that's all the more symbolic without turning them into nothing but symbols. Another animated production created from Miyazawa's body of work, the biographical Spring and Chaos, used a similar device, and Sugii himself revisited the idea when he adapted another Miyazawa work, The Life of Guskou Budori, for the screen in 2012.
What throws the use of this technique into the sharpest relief is Sugii's version of the scene when the refugees from the Titanic board the train. They are not depicted as cats, but instead as relatively realistic human beings. The mere fact Sugii chooses to do this is striking by itself, but I believe there is more to this than simply the execution of a stylistic effect. Sugii wants to set these particular characters apart from all the others encountered by the boys in their journey. Not just because they are among the dead, but because of the way they have witnessed death — a way that parallels, if only very loosely, the way Campanella himself has died — and because they now have something to communicate to Giovanni about it all. The dead have a lesson for the living, if only the living are prepared to hear it, and the young among the living need to hear it most of all.
Sugii's visual devices are too singular and striking to be re-used elsewhere. The Manga de Dokuha ("Reading Through Manga") series, where classic literature from both Japan and the West are adapted into manga format (Dogura Magura, for instance), has its own version of Galactic Railroad. As per the generally middlebrow nature of the adaptations in that series, it's nowhere nearly as creative or interesting as Sugii's project. Giovanni looks like Huck Finn, and his village looks generically middle-European.
Creatures of the universe
Creations like Railroad, the story and the film alike, tend to produce one of two reactions in people. One is bemusement, where people are willing to admit there's something to all this, but are hard-pressed to put it into words, and eventually fall back on the dismal canard "I didn't get it" to describe their reaction. The other type of reaction is one of empathy, where the viewer may not "get" it, but also knows on a gut level they don't necessarily have to "get" anything. The first is intellectual; the second is emotional; and I think those who evince the second attitude will mine that much more out of Railroad.
There's an easy criticism of Railroad available there — namely, that any story that claims to have a moral shouldn't be so obtuse, especially one that has younger viewers in mind. But I think this ignores the way stories for such audiences can be constructed primarily out of emotions and sensations, rather than plotlines or logic. Sometimes the best way to get something to stick with an audience, young or old, is to bypass their thoughts and go straight for emotions they didn't know they might feel.
In my discussion of Princess Kaguya I mentioned a line from Gerard Jones's essay about Watership Down, about how the darkness in that film was "the dark of night, of dreams, of sorrow and terror and peace". The same feeling abounds here. Many of the best children's stories are, at the heart of it, dark stuff — not the trendy dark of the current flood of teen-dystopia productions, but the same sort of dark shared by Watership Down and Galactic Railroad. They traffic in a sense of empathy for the universe's vastness and indifference; we were all young and fearful once. What matters is to be able to stand up out of that and not be knocked back down into it.
While I was in the middle of writing this article, news broke of the first successful detection of gravity waves, confirming Einstein's theories about same. The details of the discovery are humbling stuff: the waves in question constituted a force greater than the output of all the stars in the visible universe. If Railroad is preachy, the only thing it's really preaching is to have a sense of wonder, to always remain conscious of the impermanence and minuteness of one's existence, and to find ways to draw humble strength from that awareness. Giovanni is invited not only to look up into the abyss of the night sky and out into a universe of wonders, but also down into himself, to not flinch no matter which way he looks, and to let the death of his friend empower him instead of cripple him. We and the universe are, after all, one and the same ("You could say we all live in the waters of the river of heaven" says Giovanni's teacher), although that is as much a call to responsibility as it is a reason for celebration. Perhaps that's the rationale for the movie's final shot — the Milky Way in all its cold glory, overlaid with the words (in Japanese and Esperanto): IT ALL BEGINS WITH THIS.