Movie Talk: Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

I discovered Kenji Miyazawa’s novella Night on the Galactic Railroad just a couple of years ago, following the release of Shunji Iwai’s film A Bride for Rip Van Winkle. In the film, the protagonists’ internet handle is Campanella, after one of the central characters in Miyazawa’s work. This is a curious choice. Nanami, the character who uses the name online, comments that she is simply a fan of Miyazawa, but her handle seems to foreshadow her relationship with another character named Mashiro. Nanami and Mashiro’s relationship does bare some similarity to that of Giovanni and Campanella in Night on the Galactic Railroad, but ultimately Mashiro assumes Campanella’s semblance over Nanami. Looking at these characters in this parallel sort of way reveals another layer to Shunji Iwai’s film. I have always respected Iwai as a writer and I love that he references other art frequently in his work.

Night on the Galactic Railroad is perhaps Miyazawa’s most well known work, but was not actually published until a year after his death. It tells the tale of two young boys named Giovanni and Campanella, who find themselves aboard a train travelling through the cosmos. It’s major themes are death, happiness, and self-sacrifice. I have seen some other commentators describe Miyazawa’s philosophy as being naive, but I don’t believe another person’s sentiment can necessarily be defined in any unambiguous way. I’ve also read the author’s short work The Nighthawk Star and Signal and Signal-less and personally feel they are very profound in many respects, but it is Night on the Galactic Railroad that has stuck with me.

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Passages from the book are on my mind quite frequently and I have written previously about my favourite quotations. Given my adoration for this novella, I thought it was time I finally watched the 1985 anime adaptation. Now I’ve seen it, it is perhaps one of my most favourite book-to-film adaptations there have ever been. It’s a very respectful rendition, and contains all the poignancy and wonder of the book.

The source material is enriched by the haunting soundtrack, and despite the limited animation, there are some striking visuals. The main sequence with the Bird Catcher is a fine example of this. The plot occurs in segments, and unravels in a very steady and organic pace. It’s often ponderous and unhurried, but the segments are neither too brief nor too extensive, and neither are they unwarranted. Miyazawa’s sentiment and the themes of the original story have been handled and presented very tactfully.

There are many reflective passages in the book, which would have worked well as dialogue, but Giovanni’s monologue has been stripped down, with much emotion and sentiment expressed visually. I especially loved Giovanni’s fixed gaze as Campanella talks to the girl. In the book, Giovanni is very jealous, but here he comes across as solemn and melancholic.

I do think the book is more philosophical in areas (some of Miyazawa’s character’s are quite outspoken and inquisitive when they discuss topics such as happiness and pain) and it does present a greater sense of loss and sorrow in certain segments, but I appreciate the film’s more subdued and meditative approach all the same. It respects the audiences’ intelligence and rewards observation and thought.

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The scenes on the Galactic Railroad are of course most central, but I adored the first act and found almost all of the film mesmeric and enrapturing. Small little sequences, such as Giovanni spotting his classmates playing in the distance, but walking off broodily in the opposite direction, aren’t always the most prominent or memorable in written form, but here every scene seemed to have weight or an essence to it.

The plot is centered mostly around child characters, but its profundity is surely felt by audiences by and large. One of the biggest changes from the book to the film was to make almost all of the characters anthropomorphic cats. It seems a rather puzzling decision when you read it out like that, but somehow it feels so befitting of the story. Bizarrely, anthropomorphic cats have never appeared so human and so profound.

There are some tremendous ruminations in this film; it is beautiful and bittersweet; at once heartfelt and heartbreaking. Miyazawa’s words have transferred so brilliantly to the screen, and ultimately not only is this a fantastic adaptation, but also a fantastic companion piece to the original work.

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