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Night on the Galactic Railroad

Entry updated 3 May 2021. Tagged: Film.

Japanese animated film (1985). Original title Ginga Tetsudō no Yoru. Group TAC, Nippon Herald, TV Asahi. Based on the novella by Kenji Miyazawa. Directed by Gisaburo Sugii. Written by Minoru Betsuyaku. Voice cast includes Hidehiro Kikuchi, Kaori Nakahara, Chika Sakamoto and Mayumi Tanaka. 110 minutes. Colour.

A young anthropomorphized cat, Giovanni (Tanaka), is late joining his classmates by the river to celebrate the Festival of Stars, as he has to work after school: his father, a fisherman, has not returned from his last voyage and his mother is bedridden, so his life is hard. He rests on a hillside and is surprised by the arrival of a steam train from outer space: curious, he boards it. It seems to be empty, but just as it departs his friend Campanella (Sakamoto) appears, saying his other classmates "ran after me, but they were just too late to catch me"; Giovanni notices his coat is wet.

At the first stop the friends get off to look around: they visit an archaeological dig on the partially submerged skeleton of an immense aurochs. Giovanni picks up a walnut that the archaeologist says is 1.2 million years old; it crumbles to dust when he returns to the train.

People appear on the train only to fade away; others engage the pair in conversation. The train's blind radio operator picks up a transmission distorted by static: the hymn "Nearer My God to Thee". A tutor (Kikuchi) and two children, all human, appear, having been on a ship that hit an iceberg; the trio disembark at the Southern Cross and join a queue heading towards a giant crucifix. The train approaches the Coalsack Nebula, with the friends the only passengers left, but their Perceptions differ: Campanella (who has proved evasive when Giovanni talks of their always being together) sees the fields of the True Heaven and knows his mother is waiting for him; but Giovanni only sees the darkness of the nebula, save for a briefly glimpsed lamp. Campanella departs despite Giovanni's pleas, who then finds himself back on the hillside. His belief this was a dream is shattered when he learns Campanella had drowned saving a schoolfriend.

A Religious tale of Eschatology – heavily Christian, but with Miyazawa's Buddhist faith also in evidence – whose concerns are happiness and selflessness, with the author's position likely reflected in Campanella's observation "I think people are happiest when they do something truly good". The young girl (Kaori) also tells the fable of a burning scorpion, who ran from a predator but fell into a hole and laments that its death is now useless, when if it had accepted its fate it would served some purpose by feeding its attacker.

In the original work the characters were all human; the change to catpeople is presumably intended to make this moving but subdued tale more palatable to children. Kunihiko Ikuhara's Penguindrum (2011) frequently references the novella and this film. [SP]


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