Monday, October 11, 2010

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985)

October 14th, 7:00PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

The range of style and subject matter of Japanese animation is far greater then the fraction of it that has become well known in the United States, and this film is a striking example of that fact. Night on the Galactic Railroad is an examination of ideas of existence, life and death seen through the eyes of a child. The central character is Giovanni, a young boy who lives a quiet life caring for his mother in what seems to be a small Western European town at the turn of the nineteenth century. One night a phantasmal train arrives to take him and his best friend on a metaphorical journey through space and time.
Stylistically, the film is slow moving and surrealistic in tone. These factors are what fuel its champions and detractors. The subject matter is also rather heavy, but it would be unfair to say that it is not a film accessible in tone to a great many children. It also deals with a range of philosophical beliefs including both the Christian and Buddhist conceptions of death, as well as a range of episodes that have a distinctly metaphorical bent.

The film is based upon the 1927 novel Night on the Milky Way Railroad by Miyazawa Kenji. For those that are not familiar with his work, he is a man who is widely considered to be the greatest Japanese poet of the early twentieth century. The film is a faithful adaptation of one of his most popular works. During his short life he lived in rural Japan and had a deep interest in varying philosophical disciplines including Buddhism. The majority of his work including the novel in question was only discovered after his death. But a major chan in the adaption from the novel to the film comes from noted avant-garde playwright Minoru Betsuyaku who pinned the script. He transformed all of the characters into cats. Before seeing the film many tend to find this discouraging, but in reality it actually greatly complements the material by giving the characters an unreal, slightly abstract quality. There is also a nod in the film to Miyazawa Kenji’s love and fervor towards Esperanto, many of the signs in the film are posted in both it and the fictional language of the cats.
This isn’t the only work of animation that was based around Miyazawa Kenji’s life and works, in honor of the centennial anniversary of his birth the 1996 animated film Spring and Chaos was produced. It was a loosely biographical film detailing events in the poets frequently tragic life and depicts the writing of the novel that Night on the Galactic Railroad was based upon. Other works that have an acknowledged debt to this source material include Leiji Matsumoto’s well loved Galaxy Express 999 manga, which spawned a range of feature films and a TV series.
Japan, Director Gisaburo Sugii, Cast Mayumi Tanaka and Chika Sakamoto, 108 minutes, in Japanese with English subtitles

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