The Night on the Galactic Railroad 銀河鉄道の夜 is a 1934 children’s novel by poet Kenji Miyazawa about a boy’s mysterious journey on a train through the Milky Way. The 1985 animated movie adaptation is a gorgeous rendering of a strange and wondrous story. I’ve marvelled at this film for a few years and wanted to share some of my favorite scenes from the first half of the movie.
The use of perspectives and zooming in and out of scenes creates an otherworldly and eerie adventure befitting of the tale.
While the book features human characters, the movie’s characters are cats. Miyazawa purportedly hated cats because he found them lazy and too similar to humans. The two main characters are Giovanni, the shy, blue cat and Campanella, the kind, popular pink cat. Giovanni is the class outcast while Campanella is a star.
Giovanni is an arresting character. He’s a hard worker who believes in the loyalty of his friend. Even if Campanella doesn’t defend him from the bully Zanelli’s jabs, he believes in their connection, their friendship. He works hard in his father’s absence to care for his mother. He believes his father will come home with many treasures and respects him even if he isn’t around. He has a job as a letterpress assembler. Even though the other kids his age don’t appear to work, he doesn’t complain (despite that we can see it’s a mechanic and mindless job). Giovanni diligently soldiers on.
The winding shots of his small Italian town are gorgeously rendered.
There’s a sense that permeates the film that Giovanni knows someone is watching. His wide eyes stare us down. It’s eerie when the camera closes in on his face. He appears frozen, waiting for something.
There are few adults in the film. Oftentimes Giovanni will be speaking to someone just off screen (as in the scene above in the breadshop). There’s a strong sense of isolation.
Giovanni’s mom’s voice comes from an entryway, but we never see her. Is she really there?
A light flickers on the path to town. The light illuminates a small portion of the path, but as it flickers off after Giovanni has hurried on his way, we see a floating orb. Could it be a hitodama 人魂 (a soul separated from it’s body)?
Giovanni races to a farm outside of town on an errand for his mom. He stands poised at the entrance, but a disembodied voice tells him to come back later.
Back in town, the Centaurus Festival is in full swing. Giovanni is on the outside of the circle. Isolated from the main movement. We catch a glimpse of Campanella in the crowd.
After being teased by Zanelli again, Giovanni runs outside of town. He looks up at the stars and then over to the town. It’s a beautiful juxtaposition.
As he looks out over the hill, a mysterious train suddenly appears. As soon as it materializes, the scene jumps, as in a dream, and we see Giovanni is on board the train. Shortly thereafter, Campanella appears.
It becomes clear the train is travelling through the Milky Way. Giovanni and Campanella are enchanted. They explore mysterious stops and meet travellers along the road, including a man who sells heron cookies made “of sand from the banks of the [banks of the] heavenly river”.
They hear the story of “The Fire of the Scorpio”, a selfish bug who ate other bugs, but when a weasel tried to eat him, he was afraid and ran away. Falling into a well, he drowned and realized that while other bugs had died to give him life, he had died without giving another strength. He asks God to burn his body “so that it may become a beacon, to light the way for others as they search for true happiness”.
I give only a brief overview of the second-half of the film (once Giovanni encounters the train) because I don’t want to reveal any spoilers. Suffice to say the movie is enchanting, mysterious, and a little dark. Giovanni is an admirable guide and central character to a Night on the Galactic Railroad. It’s a haunting story that will stay with you.