Night on the Galactic Railroad – Existential Crisis’ and Imagery

Night on the Galactic Railroad is an anime film that I wanted to watch for the longest time, but constantly pushed it back on my watch schedule because there are too many anime series and movies on my backlog. What intrigued me the most was hearing from Crispin Freeman himself that he was the audio director of the English dub behind this film. That is nothing about the movie itself or its production, but hearing that one of my favorite voice actors who doesn’t voice direct often actually doing that with one film feels special. I knew that this is a classic anime film that has cute animals as characters and would be visually evocative, but a lot of older anime films are like that so it wasn’t as much of a hook as it could be.

Background Behind the Movie

Coming out in 1985 by animation studios GROUP TAC and Gallop, this film is an adaptation of a famous Japanese novel. A novel titled “Night on the Galactic Railroad” that came out in 1927 by Kenji Miyazawa. This is a nine chapter children’s novel. Because of the content of this novel and the time period it came out, I don’t think we will see a children’s novel like this anymore because there is some very subdued but still some horrific visuals and ideas in this movie (and probably the book through its text) that would make a child think about the world a bit more and how fragile it could be. A little harsh, but one that will probably give a child some empathy if they are not scared away by the media of choice a person chooses wants to say.


Spoiler warnings from a film that is almost forty years old: I am going to bring up a lot of what happens in the movie because I can’t see myself really discussing the film itself in any way if I don’t. You can read two more paragraphs after this. After that is when I start digging into more content about the film itself.

The Story

This movie starts in what feels like a little, out of the way village full of cat people. Giovani, a blue cat, is our protagonist in this story and he is not a well liked person at school. He is picked on by almost everyone at school, besides another boy named Campanella who is the popular one that decides to help Giovani out when he can. Giovani also has a sick mother at home, works in the printing mill, and has a father that is not there currently. A lot of things really that separates him from the other kids. It feels so strange for something with such cute character designs doing this sort of hard look at this kid, but desperately with art and themes is common in anime. 

Still, that is just at the start of those things happening. This film takes place during the night of what is called the Festival of the Stars. Something that Giovani can’t go to immediately because he wants to get the milk that didn’t arrive at his house today. Eventually he does go to the festival, but at one point for one reason or another in personal matters, Giovani runs up a hill around his town and sees a train. He boards it and Campanella is there. The two start off on their adventure with where the train takes them, who they meet on the train, a lot of good and honest things too. Some that require a lot of thinking with its ideas while others are more obvious. It feels very Angel’s Egg in that way, but from much more innocent angles.

The Strangeness Begins

The train does go on many stops. Some of them showing the town Giovani and Campanella are from but in a ruined form years later with people excavating it for clues. Other images are the strange bird-catchers that catch herons which turn out to be candy. A lot of small little shots of this strange world the train is taking them on. No connections at all, but it’s really fascinating on where this film wants to take everything in these small cuts that are strange but mystical in their own ways. I like a lot of things, but strange things that I can form my own interpretation of. It means some creative ways to have conversations about what these things could mean while saying that both enjoy the film. 

We could move to some interesting obvious time period stuff from when the novel was made with a lot of really interesting blatant imagery of this too. There are supposedly two children and a tutor coming from an ocean liner that was sunk by an iceberg. It’s obvious which one that is. This is where some apple imagery comes into play where Giovani and Campanella somehow create a copy of the apples they have and hand them to the starving children. Then there is a follow up of that where more passengers appear on the train and get off at the train stop that is a giant, glowing cross. What could that mean? I mean, it’s kind of obvious to me about what it represents.

Interpretations, Interpretations, Interpretations

The weirdness of this film from the people who died on the Titanic to the heron candy to the beginning where Giovani is estranged from the rest of his class really give this film some very interesting and harrowing vibes. The middle part really says a lot about strangeness, but everything else is a bit dour and explorative in ways that I kind of find interesting. I also wonder how close this adaptation is to the book because you can feel the nine chapters of this film throughout it because it feels cut into sections. There is a lot that you can dig into about this film if you enter with an open mind and take up your own reference frame of what it is trying to say or whether or not it actually is saying something in the first place.

To me, my own interpretation is tied to the ending of this film. I won’t say what happens or what is brought up, but it really ties the whole things together for me about this journey into the afterlife and whether or not that is where people will go. Especially with the reveal of life as we move forward. Especially since the Titanic and what happens are connected by one very universal thing. This rings true for me with also the archeologist digging up fossils towards the beginning of the film. Everything about death is brought up in this film in interesting ways that makes it feel more layered than saying “these are people that are passing on.” It’s a very transient film in that sort of way.

So yeah, I liked this film. It looks cool, has some cute cats as the main characters that live in a city of other walking cats, and has some very evocative and complicated imagery throughout it that may weird people out or disconnect people, but I find this fascinating. I love films like this where you have to watch it multiple times and maybe get an idea for what it was going for. Or have conversations about it with other people. My reading of this film is very surface level, but I want to get into it more to come up with a different interpretation if I can. It is a film that is available for free on a lot of streaming platforms in the United States so watch it when you have the time to do so. 

12 comments

  1. Wow, that was worth the read. I came in thinking it would look like some Ghibliesque phototype but turns out it was probably more than what Miyazaki would probably have chucked in, especially after you mentioned Angel’s Egg (a very wacky film, if anything else). On a side note this part is quite… chilling if you ask me:

    “Then there is a follow up of that where more passengers appear on the train and get off at the train stop that is a giant, glowing cross. What could that mean? I mean, it’s kind of obvious to me about what it represents.”

    It reminds me of one of the alleged revelations from a certain Marian apparition celebrated in Catholic circles, something about clergy walking up to a hilltop cross, with themes of martyrdom and all notwithstanding. Never thought I’d see something like that in anime.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, I feel like Miyazaki has some very clear things that he sticks to in this stories. Not a bad thing though because he knows his strengths.

      Well, I learned a little bit about catholicism today. It’s very interesting that the original author did include it because he was a devout Buddhist.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. All I had to read was that the main characters were cats and I was sold! But really this sounds like a very cool movie. This sounds a bit like the anime A Chinese Ghost Story, it’s also about someone (not a cat) that travels to the after life and see really odd things there. I think that one also came out in the 1980’s. Thanks for the heads up, I will definitely check it out!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. I remember picking this up from the library and not realizing it would not be a cheerful story about two cats going on a trip to stars…. it’s one of those films that lingers a lot because it’s up for interpretation. Knowing when the novel was written finally puts into context the Titanic scene since that came out of left field for me. I should re-watch this at some point because it feels like a film that you get more out of with each watch. Thanks for reminding me about this one!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. What a coincidence! I only just watched this one yesterday on Retrocrush. It’s quiet and beautiful, and I would love to read the original novel sometime. I’ve read a few other short stories by Kenji Miyazawa, and find it interesting that they’re labelled “fairy tales”. As you said, it’s all about individual interpretations, but that in itself makes it so different from other children’s stories. I feel like I would have been very bothered by the lack of a clear moral message at the end of each chapter had I read/watched this when I was younger.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yay! Moya Watch Anime 2022 is happening and that makes me happy. Glad you liked it too!

      Did you read some English translations or did you read in Japanese, because I’m kind of curious about his work too.

      I keep thinking about the original European fairytales that are a bit darker then how they are told through Disney, but I guess even those have a pretty clear message to children.

      Like

      1. I read them in English. Yeah, as a kid I had no problem with things like the original Bluebeard, but things like Greek mythology also used to confuse me. Apollo chased Daphne, so she turns into a tree? Is that a reward or a punishment?? What should I learn from it?

        Haha, that might be why I hadn’t done particularly well in literature classes until much later on. Took me a long time to appreciate ambiguous stories that don’t try to “teach” something explicitly, and I wish more authors like Miyazawa would write kids’ stories!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Ah, I see. Maybe I should diversify my reading portfolio at some point because I’ve been reading sci fi novels when not reading manga or blog posts or anything else. Hmmmm….

        Yeah, Greek Mythology is just strange like that. Some of it is more poignant like Oedipus Theseus, other stuff clearly has people turning into trees or having parts of their bodies taking out of them for the rest of their lives.

        Liked by 1 person

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