Movie Review: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985, Japan)

We’ve been conditioned by Disney and Pixar to think that animated movies are for children. Light in tone, with a standard comic relief sidekick for the protagonist. Simple messages about love and family and all that, plus an obligatory happy ending. But animation is just another means for telling a story, and that story need not be one suitable for children. Take a look at Fantastic Planet or Cool World or Fritz the Cat, for example. Most definitely NOT appropriate for children!

Even when the source material is ostensibly a children’s story, or the main characters are anthropomorphic animals, the resulting movie might not necessarily be something you’d want to watch with your kids.

Night on the Galactic Railroad is based on a classic of children’s literature (at least in Japan) by Kenji Miyazawa. If the movie is a reasonably faithful adaptation, it’s hard to imagine why. Not that it’s a classic, but that it was thought appropriate for children. Young adults, maybe… It’s positively loaded with theology, philosophy, and surrealistic imagery which I think would go way over their heads.

Anyway, on to the story.

Giovanni is having trouble in school. Not that he’s slow or a poor student, but that his home life doesn’t give him enough time to devote to his schoolwork or make friends. His mother is ill, and his father is away on some sort of expedition or business trip. And when he’s not doing chores or running errands, he brings in a little (very little) money by doing odd jobs at a print shop whenever there’s work available. It seems that his only friend is his classmate Campanella.

Tonight, the town is having a “Festival of the Stars”. Giovanni would love to attend, but he’s got a lot of work and errands to do. These errands send him dashing all around town, giving him (and us) tantalizing glimpses of the Festival. Tired from all this, when asked to wait a few minutes by the proprietor of a dairy, he lays down in a field to gaze at the stars. Evidently he dozes off, since a huge locomotive pulls up next to him. He climbs aboard, and meets Campanella.

And they are off on a magical, mystical, metaphysical journey along the Milky Way.

It’s easy to tell that there’s a shift in tone once we board the train. In the town, all the characters were (simply drawn) animals of one sort or another. The other passengers on the train are almost all humans. I understand this was a controversial change from the original story, where all the characters – in the town and on the train – were human.

It’s a really strange journey. Giovanni and Campanella meet a man who grabs herons out of the air at one stop, and somehow turns the birds into candy. Other encounters are not so pleasant. There’s the tutor with his two charges, who tells about the shipwreck they were in. It’s evidently the Titanic, and as he goes on, his story gets darker and darker until it finally dawns on you just what the entire train ride represents.

The artwork is simple, but elegant. The voice acting in the English version I saw is quite good. There’s a lot of obvious Christian imagery in the movie, and I’m told there are quite a few Buddhist references.The pacing is very slow as well, giving the whole movie a meditative feel. It is a deep and philosophical movie, one which certainly would bear repeated viewing.

But don’t watch it with your kids. They’ll be asking too many questions that you won’t be able to answer.

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