Night on the Galactic Railroad Review
So, how to approach a film like Night on the Galactic Railroad (Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru)? It certainly can be a tricky business. Does one dust off its pedigree first, mentioning that it's a 1985 animated version of a 1927 literary classic by one of the most admired Japanese poets of the early 20th Century, Kenji Miyazawa? Perhaps it's easier to be clinical and explain that it's a parable in fabular mode focusing on the emotional journey of two anthropomorphised children along a 'railroad' of metaphysical discovery. On the other hand, there's always the quirky angle to be attempted - like the fact that Miyazawa wrote the entire story in both Japanese and Esperanto (Nokto de la Galaksia Fervojo). Or is it better to come clean and admit that it's a 108-minute (and often glacially-paced) philosophical meditation on death, religion, spirituality, self-sacrifice, and one's own place in the universe? Where to begin, where to begin...
I suppose it's best to start with an admission: this isn't my first exposure to the ideas of Kenji Miyazawa, and so my take on Night on the Galactic Railroad is bound to be slightly biased. Not that I know much about the man, really. He lived between 1896 and 1933 in Japan's rural Iwate Prefecture, and was an idealist and a dreamer during a period of nascent modernisation that had little tolerance for either. A gifted writer whose works only rose to prominence long after his own untimely death at 37, his life was one marked by personal tragedy and philosophical disagreements with his own parents and colleagues. So well-loved is Miyazawa in modern Japanese society that on the centenary of his birth, a bizarre animé adaptation of his life story, known as 'Kenji's Spring' (Kenji no Haru, or - in the West - Spring and Chaos) was released theatrically to broad popular interest. But this is somewhat tangential to the point of this review; if you'd like to learn more about Miyazawa, by all means please refer to my above write-up. For now, let's return the focus to Night on the Galactic Railroad.
On the surface, the story seems to be a light fantasy regarding two schoolchildren (the protagonist Giovanni and his best friend Campanella) who during their village's Festival of the Stars one night are whisked away on a magical train that takes them through the Milky Way, presenting them with a series of strange and wondrous visions and encounters. This is in fact how the blurb on the back of the Amaray case sells the show, but it's important that parents who are contemplating a purchase of this DVD for young children understand that this facile description is somewhat misleading... both the pace and portent of Night on the Galactic Railroad are so ponderous that children may not get much out of the film, and teenagers will probably be bored stiff and therefore miss the underlying implications.
Which leaves this as that curious cinematic contradiction... a story written for children that is more likely to be appreciated by adults. Of course, even adults will have to resolve themselves to patience in order to survive the film's slow journey and may in the end take issue with some of the religious and spiritual messages Miyazawa was transmitting through this work. Examples of some key memes include:
- 'I think people are happiest when they do something truly good.'
- 'There's really nothing more satisfying than hard work at a job you do well.'
- 'To reach true happiness we must serve God, even if we do so from the depths of our despair.'
Most of this is fairly standard philosophical fare, but I would personally advise parents who still wish to show this movie to their kids to sit down and watch it with them... because otherwise it's very natural for them to misinterpret some of the more esoteric messages. A case in point would be the parable of the scorpion that features late in the film. Not only is it presented by a pair of dead children whose guardian admits to making a conscious decision to let them drown so they could proceed directly to heaven rather than face a life of untold future miseries, but the tale itself could easily be construed as attributing a 'death cult'-like nobility to self-sacrifice while a foolish arrogance is assigned to self-preservation.
The further one progresses into Night on the Galactic Railroad, the more such dichotomies of interpretation present themselves. Particularly interesting to me was the distinction between the 'Heaven' the vast majority of the passengers (including the above drowned children) disembark into and the 'True Heaven' that is Campanella's destination (which, incidentally, requires a longer journey to reach), as the heavy symbolism makes it clear that the former is based upon the popular understanding of the Christian mythos, while the latter seems to necessitate a progression beyond doing merely what is expected and into wisdom and enlightenment. Similarly, if we focus specifically upon the character of Giovanni, one could view this entire story as one of personal hardship leading to a mystical epiphany that prompts a spiritual rebirth.
However interesting this premise, the execution is not without its flaws. First, the film is almost painfully protracted, rife with pregnant pauses in the dialogue, listless inactivity by the principals, and vacant expressions on the face of the ostensible protagonist; it's safe to say that the same story could have been told much more effectively in somewhere between half and two-thirds of its 108-minute running time. Second, the imagery is a bit hit or miss, unlike the rich and consistently-intriguing visual style of Spring and Chaos. (Although both films reference Miyazawa's recurrent theme of waters lapping over a train as a symbol for a person's journey towards death.) There are a few lovely scenes thrown in here and there, but most of the time the viewer is expected to just sit in a drab train compartment with Giovanni and Campanella and watch them stare uncomfortably at one another.
The video quality on this DVD is not great by any stretch, but nor is it abysmal; I'm basically saying, 'It's a 1985 production, and it definitely shows.' Unlike some of Central Park Media's other animé releases that have received full digital remastering (Project A-ko and Grave of the Fireflies springing readily to mind), the picture seen on this disc is completely unretouched, direct from the original video master... and has not aged particularly well.
Problems to watch for include: intermittent cel damage (from scratches to dust specks to the occasional huge 'cigarette burn'-style blotches), recurrent frame jitter, a dingy and lifeless colour palette, sporadic fuzziness, and an overall DVD encode that is extremely dark and grainy. Nor are Takao Kodama's character designs going to be to everyone's liking. (Although I personally don't mind all of the anthropomorphic cats, I recognise that the artwork and animation style here looks rather flat and dated compared to anything that's come out in the past decade or so.)
Fortunately, beyond these issues, there's nothing truly awful to report... it's merely an old film with old video to match; if the premise sounds interesting to you (or you're merely curious to see what I believe is the only cinematic adaptation of a Miyazawa work), then these picture flaws will not prove too distracting. In addition, despite all reports to the contrary, this film was not released as full-frame (4:3). As you can see from the screenshots I've provided, the true aspect ratio is closer to 1.6:1, so not quite what we all consider widescreen, but not standard TV proportions, either. When the film plays, however, there are 'black bars' framing the top and bottom of the screen, so perhaps this padding is what gave people the impression it was a 4:3 presentation.
The audio quality is passable with no glaring defects as far as I can tell. I've listened through the film in both the original Japanese and the English dub and didn't detect any dropouts or excessive levels of white noise even at higher volumes. Also notable - and a bit on the strange side - was the score of Night on the Galactic Railroad, which is ethereal and spooky in equal measure. (I quite liked it.)
The Japanese voice actresses playing the lead roles of Giovanni and Campanella were, respectively, Mayumi Tanaka (Ryuunosuke in Urusei Yatsura, Koenma in Yu Yu Hakusho, and Kuririn throughout the various incarnations of Dragon Ball) and Chika Sakamoto (Kazuya in Kimagure Orange Road, Kentaro in Maison Ikkoku, and none other than Nuriko in Fushigi Yugi).
Moving on to the cast of the English dub, we have unexpectedly superb performances across the board, especially when it comes to the lead roles. Giovanni is performed by Veronica Taylor (probably most famous as the voice of Ash from Pokémon, but also having played Botan in Yu Yu Hakusho and Yukino in His and Her Circumstances), while Campanella is performed by the incomparable Crispin Freeman (who's not only voiced such memorable characters as Alucard in Hellsing, Tylor in Irresponsible Captain Tylor, and Tabool in Now and Then, Here and There, but who's done ADR script work on the English dubs of everything from Boogiepop Phantom to His and Her Circumstances).
The main menu is relatively straightforward, incorporating a short animated loop of video clips from the film. Despite the slightly-dubious choice of a playful, 'child-friendly' font for the main selections of a story whose predominant theme is death, I find the layout attractive and efficient. Menu response times were fast throughout, and the options available include 'Languages', 'Play Movie', 'Galaxy Maps', 'Special Features', 'DVD-ROM', and 'Sneak Peeks'. (For the curious, 'Galaxy Maps' is merely the scene selection sub-menu by another name.)
The special features aren't precisely going to rock your world, but at least there are a few useful ones included on this DVD. There's a brief CPM-made trailer for Night on the Galactic Railroad, a lengthier capsule bio of Kenji Miyazawa (about 10 pages or so), and an art gallery with around a dozen images total. If you have access to a DVD-ROM drive, then you can also access the complete English dub script for the film.
In the realm of 'not really extras but still fairly cool' is the use of a transparent Amaray and a two-sided sleeve insert, so you can see the artwork on the reverse whenever you pop open the case... and the fact that, like so many Central Park Media discs, this one is all-region (R0), so you'll be able to play it wherever you happen to live.
I can't wholeheartedly recommend this animé, because it's simply not going to be to many people's tastes, and even those who do derive enjoyment from this sort of film (of which I'm convinced there are, in fact, many) are going to have to exercise a lot of patience to wade through a piece whose tempo has plummeted well beyond adagio and larghetto, directly down to largo. However, it's not a bad bit of filmmaking... just one that could have used a little tightening up. The story itself is a bona fide literary classic, and the production team that worked on the animation script took great pains to remain faithful to the original text, so if this kind of philosophical examination piques your curiosity, you could certainly do worse than to check out Night on the Galactic Railroad. On the other hand, if you have any doubts about your level of interest (or that of your children), it might be better to give this particular disc a miss. It's cerebral, surreal, and very slow... so factor this into your rental/purchase decision.