If there’s one type of story setting with potential and possibilities that are quite literally endless, it is outer space, or more specifically, the universe. Long before humanity even conceived the scientific age, never mind entered it, we’ve been entranced by the sky’s breathtaking splendor and fascinated by its mind-boggling phenomena. I think what I especially like about interstellar stories is what they can offer audiences in terms of symbolism and meaning. Whether you enjoy studying the ways of the purely physical and scientific, or enjoy pondering the enigmas of the deities said to live on high, there’s so much here to stir the imagination of virtually any type of intellectual. But we have also been humbled and even terrified by its sheer vastness and seemingly incomprehensible mysteries. In the face of such a force of nature, there are few out there who don’t question the worth and meaning of their lives on Earth—and that includes children.
The life of Giovanni, a young village boy, is not an easy one. With his mother ill and his sea-faring father’s whereabouts unknown, he has had to work hard to support his family, leaving him no time to play with the other children and causing him to be taunted and bullied by them. But one night, as he is resting with fatigue and loneliness up on the hill side, he is stunned when a huge steam locomotive appears before him right out of the sky. He boards the train and is inexplicably joined by Campanella, the one classmate who cares for him. Giovanni is delighted in spite of his confusion, and the two boys happily ride the train together, taking in all the sights and wonders the galaxy has to offer. But it soon becomes apparent that neither this flying train nor its peculiar passengers are what they seem. And as the train approaches its final destination, Giovanni learns a valuable lesson about life, death, and true happiness.
Also known in the west by titles like Night of the Milky Way Railway, Night Train to the Stars, or Fantasy Railroad in the Stars, this is Kenji Miyazawa’s best known work and to this day one of most studied children’s novels in Japan. So impressed were readers, in fact, that the novel was published not only posthumously, but technically unfinished. Though Miyazawa’s untimely death in 1933 prevented him from completing the story, there was fortunately enough material written for publishers to release the book in a coherent state. But for all its success, its conception came in the wake of a great tragedy. In 1922, when he was 26 years old, Kenji lost his beloved younger sister, Toshiko, to tuberculosis. Grief-stricken, he traveled by train to Sakhalin not long after, plagued by the question of where his sister had gone after death. Not without reluctance and a heavy heart, he would eventually accept her passing and be inspired by his trip to write his story, thanks in no small part to his strong Buddhist beliefs.
But as devout as Miyazawa was, his writing feels a lot more spiritual than religious, mainly because of the universality he strives to emphasize throughout. For instance, the scenes exemplifying his passion for natural sciences like astronomy and geology—from the teacher’s explanation of the Milky Way, to the ancient rocks and fossils found in the Pliocene Coast—not only provide a nice educational touch, but blend beautifully with the plot’s more mystical elements to create an atmosphere of awe and respect for the natural world:
“All the pebbles along the river bed were translucent. There were clearly pieces of crystal and topaz among them. Some showed complex patterns of folds and swirls while others, diamond-bright, released a pale light-like mist where two facets met. Giovanni ran to the river’s edge and plunged in his hand. The uncanny water of the Milky Way’s silver river was more transparent than hydrogen, but, clearly, it was flowing. This could be told from the way the two boys’ wrists seemed to float with a faint tinge of mercury where they were submerged in the water, and from the way the ripples that formed where the water flowed against the wrists seemed to flicker and burn with a beautiful phosphorescent light.
[. . .]
‘There’s something strange here!’
Campanella stopped in surprise and picked up from the rock a walnut-like object, long and slender with a pointed tip.
‘It’s a walnut! Look, they’re lots of them! They didn’t just wash up here; they’re embedded in the rock.’
‘They’re big, twice the size of normal walnuts. This one’s not the least bit broken.’
‘Come on, let’s have a look over there. I bet they’re digging something up.’
Clutching their black, jagged-edged walnuts, they headed toward the spot. On their left the waves burned with a sort of gentle lightning as they lapped the shore, while on the right the ears of the pampas grass, looking as though they were made of silver and sea shells, rustled on the cliff.” (p. 36-37)
GIOVANNI: (Admiring Campanella’s strange but beautiful map.) What a neat map! Where did you get it from? It looks like it’s made out of obsidian.
[. . .]
CAMPANELLA: (Scooping a handful of glittering sand from within the river bed.) Every grain of sand is a crystalline jewel. There’s a spark of fire inside every one of them.
[. . .]
(Campanella plucks a rock-like object out of the sand.)
GIOVANNI: (Kneeling beside him.) What is it?
CAMPANELLA: (Shows him.) It’s a walnut! Just look, they’re everywhere!
GIOVANNI: (Picks up his own walnut and admires it in amazement.) That’s a huge one! It’s twice as big as a normal walnut, and it looks in perfect shape.
[. . .]
(The two boys make it back to the train just in time for it to leave the Pliocene Coast.)
CAMPANELLA: (Breathless but excited.) Yeah, we made it back. We just ran as fast as the wind, for 1.2 million years! It’s amazing!
GIOVANNI: (His voice filled with wonder.) Yeah, for 1.2 million years.
And certain artistic choices by the author also reflect a sort of social and geographical neutrality. The book offers almost no physical character descriptions, but said characters come from a village with various European features and have common Italian names, even when they are drawn as distinctly Asian. To blur the ethnic lines even further, as well as to solve the issue of visual presentation of racial and cultural identity, the animators of the film decided to depict the characters as anthropomorphic cats rather than humans.
Additionally, Miyazawa had a strong interest in Esperanto, today the most widely spoken constructed international auxiliary language in the world. The film pays homage to this by presenting each chapter title in Esperanto along with his native Japanese. More to the point, it’s worth noting that the name in English means “one who hopes”. I don’t know whether he had this implication in mind, but I think there is a connection between that and the story’s biggest thematic question: “What is true happiness?” Here, Miyazawa suggests that the answer lays in self-sacrifice. Giovanni’s own unhappiness runs deeper than just the pain of loneliness; the more he is faced with this idea, the more uncertain he becomes whether his life could ever truly benefit others. This is ironically exacerbated by his relationship with Campanella. Feeling both admiration and inferiority toward him, his only friend, Giovanni desperately wants nothing more than for the two of them to stay together forever, a desire all the more heartbreaking for the oppressive sense that it could be dashed at any time:
“For some reason—he did not know why—Giovanni began to feel unbearably sorry for the bird catcher sitting next to him. [. . .] He was about to ask the bird catcher what he desired most, but thought that might seem too abrupt. Wondering what would be the best thing to do, he glanced behind him, only to find that the bird catcher was no longer there.
[. . .]
‘I wonder where that man went?’ Campanella said softly. He, too, had clearly been thinking about him.
‘Where did he go? When will we ever see him again? Why didn’t I talk to him more than I did?’
‘I was just wondering the same thing.’
‘I just considered him a nuisance. I feel awful about it.’ Giovanni thought he had never before felt this peculiar sort of emotion, nor said this sort of thing.” (p. 53-54)
[. . .]
“Giovanni heaved a deep sigh. ‘We’re back to just the two of us alone again, aren’t we? Let’s go on and on together forever. [. . .]’
Bright tears welled up in Campanella’s eyes. ‘I feel the same way,’ he said.
‘But I wonder what true happiness really is,’ said Giovanni.
‘I don’t know,’ said Campanella in a far-away voice.
‘Well, we’ll give it our best won’t we!’ Giovanni exclaimed, drawing a deep breath as though new strength were surging up within him.
[. . .]
‘Even if I were in the middle of that huge darkness, I wouldn’t be afraid,’ said Giovanni. I really am going to go and search for the true happiness of everyone. Let’s go on together, on and on and on forever.’
‘I’ll go for sure . . . How beautiful those fields are! Everyone’s there. Now, that’s the real heaven! Look, my mother is there!’ Campanella shouted, pointing toward the beautiful fields he could see in the distance beyond the window.
Giovanni looked, but saw nothing but hazy whiteness; it did not appear at all as Campanella described.” (p. 75-76)
GIOVANNI: (Uncertainly to Campanella.) Hey, no matter where we go, we’ll be together, right?
CAMPANELLA: (Suddenly gasps and looks over Giovanni’s shoulder, noticing the bird catcher missing.) Look, that man’s gone. Where did he go?
GIOVANNI: (Looks around the train car, then at the seat the bird catcher had previously occupied.) I wonder where he went. (Gazes at the ceiling despondently.) I sort of wish now that I had spent more time talking to him. It kind of felt like he was interrupting. I wanted him to leave. But now I feel bad.
CAMPANELLA: Yeah. Me, too.
[. . .]
GIOVANNI: I guess it’s just the two of us now. (Campanella stays silent.) Hey, let’s just keep going like this forever, okay? That’s right! We’ll always be together, won’t we, Campanella?
CAMPANELLA: (Gasps softly, then relaxes and nods.) Hmm. Yes, I’d like that.
GIOVANNI: (Suddenly puzzled.) But then again, where exactly are we going anyway?
CAMPANELLA: (Uneasily.) Well, I-I don’t know.
GIOVANNI: (Brightly.) As long as we’re together!
[. . .]
(As the train approaches the Coal Sack, a black hole.)
GIOVANNI: (Seeing Campanella’s hands trembling in his lap.) What’s wrong? Hey, don’t worry, I’m not afraid of the dark anymore. We’ll get through this together, won’t we?
CAMPANELLA: (Seemingly reassured.) Yeah, I guess you’re right then. We will get through it. (Looks out the window.) Look at that lovely field out there. It’s so beautiful, so peaceful.
GIOVANNI: (Also looking out, confused.) What field?
CAMPANELLA: That must be the field of the true heaven. I see now. That’s where my mother is. She’s waiting for me.
GIOVANNI: (Looking slowly from the Coal Sack to Campanella and back again.) Hey, Campanella. We’ll always be together, won’t we?
To be sure, Giovanni’s increasingly incessant questioning of whether he and his dearest friend will stay together borders on obsession, but that doesn’t make him an unlikable or unsympathetic character. He is a mirror of his creator’s own suffering and inner turmoil, a young man whose sudden tragic misfortune deepened his fear and confusion as to where mortal life was headed and what, if anything, lay beyond it. And what can be more human than that?
Whether you enjoy Night on the Galactic Railroad in either book or film form is going to depend greatly on taste. Its plot and tone are quiet and somber rather than epic and action-packed, and the movie in particular may require some patience—especially from children—for its sparse dialogue and relatively slow pace. But those who choose to experience it in full will be rewarded with a visually stunning and gently moving story that explores faith, grief, and self-reflection through the eyes of souls who wonder what they will leave behind as well as what they will find next when they leave this world for good.
Credits: All images, audio, and links belong to their respective owners; no copyright infringement is intended.
“The Call” — Briand Morrison and Roxann Berglund
“Mind And Eye Journey” & “Sea Space” — Emily A. Sprague
All book excerpts are from Night of the Milky Way Railway by Miyazawa Kenji, English translation by Sarah M. Strong (1991 edition, published by M. E. Sharpe, Inc.)
All other sound and music clips are from the English dub of Night on the Galactic Railroad (production by Group TAC; distributed by Nippon Herald Films).
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