Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa has shown remarkable longevity, and is considered a timeless classic of children's literature in Japan. By comparison, the 1985 anime film directed by Gisaburo Sugii has failed to earn such high accolades; but it is remembered. Very possibly, it does far too many unique things for it not to be. The anthropomorphisizing of Miyazawa's characters as cats is just the tip of the iceberg, for a film that is seeped to the bone in abstract ideas and religious symbolism. The paper thin plot of the film serves as a vessel to take the viewer on a metaphysical journey through concepts such as life, death, and the afterlife.
What story there is focuses on a young cat named Giovanni, a young boy who is ostracized and ridiculed by all of his peers, save one: his friend, Campanella. Giovanni's days pass quietly, with the cat not daring to speak up in class. His evening are spent working to feed his sick mother. This is the introduction of the film; but what can be summarized in just sentences plays out, dully, over the first thirty minutes of the film. The rest of the film takes place on a train travelling through time, the milky way, and perhaps the depths of Giovanni's own subconscious.
My instincts tell me that Night on the Galactic Railroad is a very thoughtful, and intelligent movie, but it would be a lie for me to say that I understood everything in it. Railroad is much like a David Lynch film, where each scene is carefully constructed to communicate certain feelings and thoughts in the viewer. Taken literally, it's not a film that makes logical sense, and it's not a film that spins a convincing tale. A dream-like sequences of herons trickling inexplicably from the sky occurs midway through the film. This sequence is augmented by an existential monologue by a woman -- a human woman -- who died on the Titanic, and a spiritual procession of hooded figures marching towards an enormous crucifix. The result of these scenes, in conjunction with one another, is a movie that gives its viewer a lot to ponder over. However, it's weaknesses are that beyond being a mental exercise in unraveling symbolism, the movie isn't particularly interesting, whether in terms of its story, or its visual imagery.
I appreciate how much effort went into creating Night on the Galactic Railroad. It's a very nuanced film. But I can't help but feel that a lot of this effort was misplaced. There are too many solid-fill backgrounds that are entirely black, or entirely white.There is too much empty space on frames' canvases. What's more, the artwork itself is largely unimpressive, even for a film released in 1985. The result is that a first time viewer will spend an hour and forty-five minutes viewing an ugly movie, and will likely be frustrated and/or confused by the strange images or she is seeing. None of the scenes in this film are "random", but deciphering them will required that a viewer give them a great deal of thought, and that the viewer possess a deep pool of knowledge with regards to religious themes, motifs, and symbols. In other words, Night on the Galactic Railroad is a challenging film that gives viewers a lot to think about, but it has a narrow audience, and as a movie it's totally boring.
Night on the Galactic Railroad is greater than the sum of its parts, however. The seemingly disjointed segments fit together thematically, and even without a strong understanding of the film's numerous allusions, this can be felt and understood by the viewer. The fact that it manages to communicate and explore ideas such as loss, the coming of age, mortality is amazing considering how little story there is. The problem lies in that Night on the Galactic Railroad chooses between being an interesting movie and being a philosophical one; and that's not something that it should have done. Ghost in the Shell is every bit as intelligent as Sugii's film, while also being beautiful, stylish, and exciting to watch. Perhaps the problem is that by its nature, Night on the Galactic Railroad does not lend itself well to the medium of animation; but in my opinion, a bit more animation, background detail, and on-screen movement would have gone a long way towards livening up the film, making it more digestible.
I'm aware that I haven't delved too deeply into what actually happens in this film. The truth is, there's little point in doing so. Night on the Galactic Railroad is a visual experience, meant to be viewed and to be felt. The plot bunny that the film hangs on isn't as important as the way the film makes a viewer feel. Even Giovanni and Campanella serve as little more than catalysts for the transmission of philosophical ideas, with little to no character development occurring in the film. I didn't care about Giovanni or Campanella in the beginning, and I didn't care about them at the end.
Whether or not you actually enjoy Night on the Galactic Railroad as a movie will depend on whether or not you are willing to accept the ideas that the film contains. I was able to empathize with Giovanni's character in many ways, even if I didn't actually care about him. Certain themes of the movie resonated strongly with me. Other portions of the movie, I wanted to dismiss as religious tripe. Your mileage is certain to vary, with personal beliefs, experiences, and philosophies all factoring into how much enjoyment you get from this film.
No matter how one slices it, the film is rather unimpressive in how it looks, and how it sounds. Characters appear flat, with lifeless eyes and facial expressions: scarcely flatter than the world in which they move about. And although backgrounds tunes are generally pleasant, the sound and sound-editing of the movie both fail to leave a strong impression upon a viewer. Voice acting is adequate if unspectacular. Ultimately, all Night on the Galactic Railroad has going for it, is that it's different. This is a shame because it comes so close to the mark in some ways, and yet completely misses that mark in others.
I am not a fan of Night on the Galactic Railroad, but I am glad to have watched it. I think it may be the greatest anime film that I've ever seen that I don't like, as peculiar as that sounds. I hesitate to recommend it as immediate viewing, but I think it's something everyone should watch at some point in their lives. I clearly disagree with many of the film's key ideas and themes, but I appreciate the detail with which they are explored.
Final Rating: 5.0 out of 10.0
Author's note: Night on the Galactic Railroad was last released on DVD in the United States in 2001, and it has long since been out of print. Because of this, it is considered a valuable and modestly rare DVD for collectors. You can expect to pay $120 for a new copy, with a used copy fetching $40. Even a VHS copy can go for as much as $25. This is not the type of film that you'll be able to pick up at your local Walmart or BestBuy. It is, however, more commonly available in Japan, for those who can speak Japanese.
Original 1985 Japanese Trailer:
John Roberts from South Yorkshire, England on August 09, 2013:
Very nice review and judging by what you've told us, it must've been very hard to do so. It seems like the kind of obscurity I would hunt down, but upon seeing it I'd be deeply disappointed. However if it's so valuable I'd be more than glad to have it on my shelves, be it gathering dust or worn down due to its replay value.
Voted up, useful, interesting and beautiful. Oh, and extra commendations for the mention of Ghost in the Shell, my first and favourite anime movie! ^^