The Wonderful Journey in “Night on the Galactic Railroad.”

What’s up with trains being a symbol of the journey to the afterlife?

I’m not complaining. Just making an observation

Seriously. Especially in Japanese culture and media, it seems that if a character is going to the afterlife, there will be a train to take them there: Over the Garden Wall, Spirited Away, The Twilight Zone all have trains that take characters to the afterlife. 

Trains are a liminal space of sorts, a place where characters can grow and change as they travel. You don’t get the same feeling on a bus.

Right now, the only media that heavily features a train and deals with change, that ISN’T a train to the afterlife is Infinity Train…At least that I can think of. And I really enjoy this trope. I think it’s interesting.

And that’s why I enjoyed Night on the Galactic Railroad, a 1985 anime movie about two boys aboard a mysterious train who meet all sorts of weird and wonderful beings. 

It’s based on a 1934 book of the same name. While most of it is pretty much the same, the biggest change is that in the film nearly all the characters are cats. And you know what? If I hadn’t known about the book -I would have assumed it this was the way the story intended the characters to be. 

It works. Like really well.

The movie follows a young cat named Giovanni who has to provide for his family. His mother is ill and his father is out at sea, so he is the only one there to provide support. Due to this, he is scorned by all of his classmates except his childhood friend Campenella.

One night, during a village festival, he goes to get milk for his mother and somehow ends up on an odd train that travels through the Milky Way with his old friend. Campanella seems to know exactly where they are going – and seems to have accepted it.

Giovanni has no idea.

They’re Cats

I never questioned why the characters were cats.  Even before I knew the original characters were human…Cats just made sense.

According to Wikipedia, the change was made to honor the original author’s belief in reincarnation – which is sweet, but it wasn’t my first thought.

When I first started the movie, I assumed they were cats because of the focus on milk in the text; namely the Milky Way and the task of picking up milk. It still makes sense. They could have chosen any animal, there had to be a reason they chose cats.

Kind of ridiculous, I know but it was the best idea I had when I was watching it.

Some characters are human – namely, the victims of the Titanic who the boys meet -but this difference isn’t commented on. 

The boys may as well be human. They walk on two legs, talk, go to school….They’re your pretty standard anthropomorphic beings. Everything else about their world seems fairly mundane as well. They hunt other animals -meaning they’re non-sentient, they have cows…So them being cats is merely an aesthetic choice.

Personally, I don’t think that the movie would have been as impactful if the characters had been human. Them being cats just adds another layer to the mystery. And it makes you second guess other stuff – there’s a suspension of disbelief already in the movie, you’re just not sure how far to take it.

Christ, Cross

I find it a little weird that so much of Japanese media uses Christian iconography when a very small percentage of the population is Christian – but then again, the US uses a lot of religious iconographies that don’t belong to them so maybe the cultural appropriation is okay in this case.

It’s what we deserve.

The train passes by two crosses: the Northern Cross – which is shown in passing by as a huge shining gigantic cross in the sky – and the Southern Cross which is also Christian Heaven. It seems most of the souls end up going there.

There’s also a gigantic gleaming cross there – but clearly, there’s more to the Heaven that we don’t get to see.

Both of these, as you may know, are actual constellations. The Northern Cross is also known as Cygnus, the swan.  All the stops that this train makes are based on constellations. The only exception is “True Heaven”, which is the Coalsack Nebula – a part of the sky with no stars at all.

I don’t know what the difference between Christian Heaven and True Heaven is -or why more people don’t go to true Heaven, but Campenella sees his mother there and chooses to get off. I assume Campenella gets to go to True Heaven due to the circumstances surrounding his death and general disposition.

Campanella after all drowns while saving one of his classmates and seems relatively calm about his fate throughout.

 There are a few other stops – and I’m not sure what they are based on or if they’re based on anything at all. 

They fit into the mysterious journey well, but I do not understand the stop where a bird catcher gets off to catch herons to turn into candy. The scene is absolutely beautiful and visually stunning. I just don’t understand it at all.

Either it’s something that didn’t translate from the original novel,  a reference to something I don’t know about or the original author just thought it was a cool idea. Considering everything I’m leaning towards the last option.

I also think all the Christian imagery is interesting because the author of the novel was Buddhist. Why is Christianity the end all be all for most? Are there different afterlives? Or does it have to do with the fact that we don’t know if there even is an afterlife? Is this just an exercise in figuring out what the in-between is?

Even though it doesn’t totally make sense – it’s a journey across the Milky Way.  If everything made sense, it wouldn’t be this extraordinary story.

A Sinking Feeling

The original novel, that the movie was based on was published in 1934. So the sinking of the Titanic was still a very recent memory and still one of the biggest tragedies of the time.

I suppose the studio didn’t want to disrespect the memory of those who had been lost by portraying them as cats, even though it was 70 some odd years later. Who knows? 

The three victims we meet are a tutor and the two siblings in their charge – rather than putting the children on a lifeboat alone – the tutor chose for all of them to stay aboard the ship as it was sinking, so at least they would be together.

This is portrayed as the noble and right thing – though I disagree. I also don’t see how it fits into the alleged theme of the film: that we live our lives for others. How can you live your life for others, but force two kids to die with you?

And obviously, this is portrayed as noble, since they all get to go to Heaven. Shouldn’t living your life mean sacrificing it to save others as Campenella did? 

It’s one of those things you really have to think about and maybe I just don’t have the capacity to do so after spending nearly a year social distancing. I truly think I’m missing something here.

Though the original book was for children -I very much don’t know if kids will really understand or enjoy what the film is about. The characters mostly have deep philosophical conversations and stare out the window at the sky and talk about what’s there. It’s very focused on the background imagery as opposed to the characters. And everything is very dark and muted.

And I definitely wouldn’t want kids watching the scene where the Titanic sinks, which is shown about as graphically as you can in a kid-oriented movie like this. You see the tutor choosing to hold on to the children and you see their bodies sinking into the ocean as “Nearer my God to Thee,” plays.

I was sobbing. We hadn’t known these characters for more than 5 minutes and I was sobbing my eyes out. 

Artistic License

So obviously there were some artistic licenses taken with the story – what with the characters being cats and all. But the most interesting aspect of the movie -for me was the use of Esperanto. Designed to be a universal language, it was a source of fascination for the book’s author but it didn’t factor into the novel,

As a way to honor the beloved children’s book author- the movie team made sure that all the text in the movie, including the title cards used to introduce each chapter, are written in Esperanto – though the characters speak Japanese.

I think this was an interesting choice. Not many people speak or can read Esperanto and the choice to go with a language that LOOKS familiar to a lot of audiences but isn’t coherent to most really also adds to the air of otherness in the film.

I also like the honor and respect paid to the original author – by also keeping so close to the original text while expanding on the ideas he had. For example, the movie features a blind man who works on the radio- who doesn’t appear in the novel.

He receives a mysterious message, broken up that turns out to be bits of “Nearer My God To Thee,” which the victims of the Titanic identify. It’s a nice little moment that still fits and also shows Campenella’s character – as he doesn’t hesitate to assist the man.

I thought it was very sweet.

There are always liberties taken when adapting a story to film – since they’re two different mediums. I haven’t read the book but I think I might now – just to see how different the two are.

Overall, this was a really unique movie experience and I encourage others to take the journey.

And that’s the scoop.

Grade: A –


Based on: Night on the Galactic Railroad by Kenji Miyazawa


Year of release: 1985

Length: 113 minutes

Director: Gisaburo Sugii

Producers: Atsumi Tashiro, Masato Hara

Screenplay by: Minoru Betsuyaku

Voice actors: Mayumi Tanaka, Chika Sakamoto


2 thoughts on “The Wonderful Journey in “Night on the Galactic Railroad.””

  1. That is one movie I wanted to see for a long time, but never had a chance to watch it. Night on the Galactic Railroad is even streaming for free on RetroCrush, so I have no excuse now. Great work on the review.

  2. Personally, I think the Tutor character must be a psychopathic religious zealot. If he had put those kids on board the lifeboat they presumably would have gone back to their father.

    Instead, this goddamned psycho decides that the children should die with him instead, just to satisfy his own religious grandeur. But that wasn’t supposed to be his decision to make.

    To hell with that guy.

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