Ginga-tetsudo no Yoru; AKA Night on the Galactic Express
DIRECTED BY: Gisaburo Sugii
FEATURING: Voices of Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakumoto
PLOT: In a fictional town in a fictional universe during the annual star-worshiping festivities, a boy and his friend find themselves on a metaphysical train that takes them on an existential journey through space. Oh, and everybody is a cat.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Even without delving into the film’s brutally in-depth takes on loneliness, death and depression, Railroad is a tripper’s paradise, filled to the brim with such weirdness as glowing, candy-flavored herons, self-replicating apples, stairways that lead to the center of the universe, and beaches where each grain of sand is a jewel filled with fire. Rich in imagery and philosophy, it treads that always intriguing line between children’s entertainment and adult existentialism.
COMMENTS: A little background is very useful when approaching Night on the Galactic Railroad, else it might sucker punch you into hating it. Based on a 1927 book by Kenji Miyazawa, the film takes many liberties with the foundations of what was a very personal story to turn the novel into something with a distinctly anime flavor. The most controversial of these decision is to have (almost) everybody in the film drawn as a cat, an early indication that realism and logic will be thrown out the window despite the fact the film follows a very human path in regards to its character’s crises. The explanation for this decision has never really been given, but some have suggested it was simply due to the fact that it was easier to animate a cat than a human. Who knows if this is true, but nevertheless this town of star-worshiping felines all have very human characteristics. It isn’t difficult to sympathize with Giovanni, our young protagonist, as he is ostracized by his peers, bullied and insulted; he has no time to socialize due to his commitment to pick up milk for his sick mother.
Esoteric creative decisions lend even the relatively dull first fifteen minutes of the film an undeniable beauty. Tilted camera angles and close ups as Giovanni goes about his work in a publishing house after school turn the mundane into the mysterious, the bland into something otherworldly. The opening scenes’ dedication to create an alien world out of the familiar, along with the stillness and quiet tension on show, is closer tothan anything else I have seen within (or outside of) the animation genre.
The film doesn’t stay on this route, though, and soon whisks us out of the medieval town. Giovanni and his only friend, Campanella, leave the occult stargazing festivities (complete with Carnivale-style masks) and find themselves on a train hurtling through space.
While the audience sits in a mild shock at these events, the two cats seem nonplussed and zombie-like. As the two friends get off the train at various stops to explore wild expanses full of beauty, the film’s tone ramps up a notch. The score most exemplifies the darkness drifting throughout Night on the Galactic Railroad. Those used to the gorgeous, soaring symphonies that often accompany the great anime films may be surprised by the intrusive, horrifying and overwhelming organ that persists throughout Railroad. Rearing its head early on in the film, almost as a warning to Giovanni, it now takes over as its driving force, reinforcing the wide landscape shots that feature the characters as minuscule parts of a greater picture, reminding us how insignificant we are. In one scene, the friends meet their teacher as he excavates rocks before the camera pans out to reveal that, unbeknownst to them, they are standing on are the bones of a giant, unidentifiable creature. Never explained or revisited, the scene stands as another reminder of the unknown.
Railroad is split up into short chapters, a series of parables and moral quandaries framed by a truly bonkers imagination. Here the weird aspects of the film emerge as it explores various religious, philosophical and scientific opinions on death, rebirth and the afterlife. For example, Buddhism is invoked in the story of a burning scorpion who sacrifices himself for the greater good and undergoes a spiritual rebirth. Then, the friends spend some time with the only humans in the film, victims of the Titanic disaster, who disembark the train and make their way towards a giant, glowing cross in the distance. The strangeness of these vignettes can be attributed to the fact that Night on the Galactic Railroad explores all possibilities of what the train represents, what we yearn for in our lives and what death means to each of us. By not settling on one representation, the audience is treated to a smorgasbord of imagery that delights, repulses and confuses. You can’t help but feel as though the troubling and mournful nature of the train journey had a major influence on the more famous train scene in Spirited Away, and then you begin to wonder how far this anime’s influence reaches.
Things become slightly clearer by the end of the film, but not before some tugging on our heartstrings with a poignant turn of events. With very little characterization throughout the meat of the story, Railroad miraculously carves out a moving finale. It is clear, however, that this film will not be for everyone, even anime connoisseurs. Its extremely slow pace and willingness to experiment has a detrimental effect on its storytelling; and the animation, while beautiful in parts, can’t hold a candle to the kind of stunning intricacy produced by Studio Ghibli or Makoto Shinaki’s work today. Nevertheless, anyone who is fan of the great thinkers and writers like Borges, Cohelo or Calvino will find solace in this most unlikely of places. While by no means perfect, Railroad does a fine job adventuring through the universe’s most closely guarded secrets.
Night on the Galactic Railroad was restored and released on Blu-ray in 2016 with a new commentary track by anime experts Justin Sevakis and Mike Toole.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Night on the Galactic Railroad is as much of an enigma as I can imagine any anime has been. It’s based on a children’s story, but is so dense with mood and symbolism that I doubt any kid would really get the point.” – Justin Sevakis, Anime News Network (DVD)