A Quick Look at Night on the Galactic Railroad

Whenever an anime deals with themes of life, death, the value of living, fate, or any other thought provoking theme, more often than not, Miyazawa Kenji’s Night on the Galactic Railroad will be referenced in one way or another. It’s pretty much a classic novel among the Japanese. Being the curious Filipino that I am, I naturally wanted to know more about it after hearing it being mentioned numerous times. Sadly, I can’t read Japanese, and I haven’t seen the translated version of the novel at our local bookstores. So I went ahead to the next best thing.

Night on the Galactic Railroad, or Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru (or, as the English novel translation would have it, Milky Way Railroad) is a novel written by Miyazawa Kenji. Something to note here is that, Miyazawa Kenji never actually got to finalize his drafts for Night on the Galactic Railroad (mostly parts in the middle of the story). Miyazawa Kenji died before he could finish, but his works were compiled and published months after, with Night on the Galactic Railroad included as is.

Oh, and in this depiction of Miyazawa Kenji’s story, the main characters are cats.

With that out of the way, the movie starts out in an astronomy class, with the teacher opening his discussion about the Milky Way galaxy – how it resembles spilled milk in outer space. At the same time, a student named Giovanni had, more or less, been in a daze. His attention was called when asked what the Milky Way was made of. He stood up, but he didn’t answer. Campanella, another student, was called, and to the surprise of his fellow classmates, didn’t answer as well. They both knew the answer, and they learned about it at the same time. They were friends. The teacher continued, and explained that the Milky Way is made up of stars, that illuminate the night sky.

After class, Giovanni headed to his part-time job at the print shop, so he could buy food for him and his ill mother. Coincidentally, it was the “Star Festival” in their town, to which his fellow classmates had gone to. One of the festival’s traditions would be the making of, and sailing lanterns along the river, which was also the plan of Giovanni’s classmates after their class. After arriving home and eating, Giovanni went out again to get milk for his mother, and along the way, check out the Star Festival. He encounters Zanelli, one of his classmates, along with Campanella and the rest of his classmates. But before he could talk to them, Zanelli and the others, except for Campanella, began firing insults at Giovanni, jesting about Giovanni’s father.

He had had enough of it, and decided to run blindly out into the outskirts of town. He ran until he reached a hill where the stars could be seen clearly. As he looked up, A train had mysteriously pulled up in front of him. As he steps inside, he sees a drenched Campanella, who seems to have known about the train’s coming. The two then agree to venture along the train’s destinations together. That marks the beginning of Giovanni and Campanella’s journey through the Galactic Railroad.

During my futile attempts to find the full novel of Night on the Galactic Railroad online, I happened upon the first two chapters of it in English, and based on what I read, the movie followed the novel’s flow very accurately. In that regard, watching the movie felt like I really was reading a book. It’s not as dialogue heavy, quantity wise, as one would expect from a novel adaptation, but the scenery of it all, and the expressions of Giovanni and Campanella (despite being cats) had a distinct air of intrigue, like, there’s more to the scene than what meets the eye. What also made it feel like reading a book was that the movie is divided into chapters, where Giovanni and Campanella encounter other people, or arrive at a new stop.

Although I say it’s not dialogue heavy “quantity wise”, it’s still very dense and, as the nature of Miyazawa Kenji’s work would have it, have a hint of symbolism. I admit I wasn’t able to catch all of them though, but I still managed to understand some of the religious undertone that Night on the Galactic Railroad had set, which, without taking away from the story, was more or less about Heaven. As Miyazawa Kenji aims to get us to think about “What is true happiness?” Is it the happiness given by others? Or the happiness we feel by making others happy? Or is it something else entirely?

I would love to have the chance to actually read the book, but for now, I would also like to believe that the movie does the novel enough justice for me to say that Night on the Galactic Railroad is worth a watch. It’s a very touching story of friendship, parting, and of moving on, in hopes that the end is only just the beginning.

7 thoughts on “A Quick Look at Night on the Galactic Railroad

  1. I just saw this film. Now I finally understand why bloggers kept on referring on this one whenever they talk about Penguindrum. I find it brilliant how they featured happiness by showing its irony. Giovanni was surely happy as he travelled with Campanella to the afterlife, however beneath that happiness is actually sadness because at some point everyone has to go down on their corresponding stops and all journeys have to end. So, this is really quite touching and poignant, if only this film is benefited by the modern animation, it would be really such so much bliss to watch it, but regardless I enjoyed it.

    • Yeah, even the scorpion fire made sense because of this movie. It really was a nice display of how Giovanni found happiness by being with Campanella, which would’ve been the true happiness Campanella was talking about. I would’ve been impacted more if I didn’t know of Campanella’s fate, but yeah, it was a moving movie. It would definitely benefit from a more modern style of animation, and, say, people characters.

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