Golden Age Theater
Directed by Gisaburou Sugii
Night on the Galactic Railroad (NotGR) is a 1985 film that gained a cult following over the years. Sugii made the film after finishing three seasons of the anime Nine, and followed by three seasons of Touch. He also released Tale of Gengi two years later. Both films are dark, brooding, and moral journies, while the series are light hearted sport romance. An interesting dynamic, but we’re not here for Sugii.
NotGR is a little secret among anime fans, and likely because it is terrifyingly difficult to get into or understand. This is a film that has a firm grasp on what it wants to do, and that thing is not to entertain. It wants heavy atmosphere, philosophy, sadness, and above all else is time. NotGR wants you to sit, fidget, let your mind wander, and then focus again, before it does anything at all.
Setting the Stage
Right from the opening we are hit with this oddly slow and twisty intro to set that idea.
Opening on the overhead shot of a school, we begin to drift down. Normally you would expect this to be a 10-30 second transition, even for detailed shots, but NotGR takes a full minute. Along with this is a windy, camera twisting, motion sickness ride across the single picture. All to get to the hallway.
It gave us nothing towards the plot, narrative, setting… nothing. It just wants the audience to understand the ride to expect, like a giant speed bump on the excitement highway. At first it can be quite boring, but by the end it felt perfect.
The tone is set, and we move into the classroom to meet our two main characters Giovanni and Campanella. Gio’s mind wanders as he looks at a map of the galaxy for the first time, halted as kids laugh thinking he’s asleep in class. This turns to establish that Gio’s father has gone North to work and fish, mainly through the children making fun and creating terrible rumors in the way kids do. Only Campanella stands for his friend, silently supporting him in the face of the bullies.
We go on to see the sorry state of affairs that Gio lives with. Brutally slow and tedious work at a printing shop, tired from the morning and the other part time job delivering papers, he earns just enough to bring food to the table. On the way home, he again drifts into a visual state of looking through the galaxy. This time by staring into a black rock. Then he moves on to return home with food for his mother.
His mother shares in the doubts and rumors about the father, and is so distant as to not even enter the same room. Gio is suffering but his hopes perk up with the plan to retrieve milk and visit with Campanella at the Festival of Lights. The dairy is empty though, save for a creepy old woman.
Gio is again rejected by his classmates at the festival, and it serves as the final straw. He leaves the village to die alone on a far away hill, suicide through social stigmata. At this moment, Gio’s wandering vision of the universe comes for a third time and he stands before the train. Thus begins the Night on the Galactic Railroad.
A Spiritual Journey of Lessons
From here, the story goes on through a series of symbolic scenes of the catharsis of death and religion. I thought at first that it was framed around a Buddhist mentality of rebirth, but it also features heavy Christian ideology. Perhaps fitting of a Japanese novelist writing about the death of his sister in 1924.
The episodic parts of the train ride each has some interesting portions to it. Things like the Bird Catcher, who spends his time capturing Herons that turn into candy, but let many of them die as they hit the ground. A wasteful and somewhat cold hearted circle of life.
The meeting with the humans, also caught within the train of purgatory, are from the Titanic and have such a great little arc. The man who risks life and limb for these children entrusted to him, faced with the reality that separation may be worse than death, and committing to stay with them in the icy waters. The girl, who delivers our central ideal and folklore outlook in the tale of the scorpion.
The scorpion laments his choice to flee from a weasel and die alone in a well. With the idea, ‘My death will be useless and I will be alone’ on its mind, the scorpion wishes that in the next life his body be used for ‘true happiness in the world.’ An outlook of sacrifice, wrapped in a wish to exist fully. Its a nice central point to the film.
The humans leave towards heaven, and Gio tries to comfort his friend. For most of the story, Campanella has been the slightly more mature and effective of the two. Watching his quiet shadow glide alone the story felt saddening at times, but this moment was such a pay off.
Gio’s affection for his friend is clear, and a great connection is held strong. Unlike Campanella though, Gio’s ticket is a special ticket that would let you enter ‘true heaven’ or any other stop along the ride. Campanella is not so lucky.
The film ends on a positive note, but it delivers a slow and methodical sadness throughout. Its almost exhausting, but the ending shows us why we took the journey we did. A glorious and tear jerking spiritual quest should always be this difficult. So Long, Space Cowboy.
I still prefer director Sugii‘s other work The Tale of Genji, but this film turned out to be really interesting. It was hard to even get into watching, with cat people and famously slow pacing, but I’m glad I did. A good film done in an odd way with solid goals, always fun to find another to add in the collection.