Based on a celebrated 1927 Japanese children's story, Milky Way Railroad, NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD is a feature-length animated fable set in a Mediterranean-style town with the characters drawn as anthropomorphic cats. This tale of a child who rides through the galaxy on a heavenly
passenger train takes Japanese animation in a different direction with its deliberate pace, storybook art, and reliance on symbolism.
Schoolboy Giovanni must work to provide for his ailing mother while waiting for the return of his fisherman father. Something of an outcast at school, he finds a sympathetic classmate in the equally quiet and studious Campanella. One night, after being taunted by his schoolmates at the Festival of
Stars, Giovanni runs off to the outskirts of town. He finds refuge in a meadow, and looks up at the Milky Way, the "heavenly river" described by his astronomy teacher.
He is startled by the sudden arrival of a massive locomotive in the field. He boards it and is overjoyed to find Campanella already a passenger. Together they experience an unusual journey through time and space, past different stations and distinct landscapes, some recalling places on earth,
others quite heavenly in appearance.
They meet all sorts of peculiar characters including an archaeologist studying prehistoric bones and million-year-old walnuts, an old bird catcher who has sacks of dead herons that taste like candy, and the train's blind wireless operator, who keeps picking up snatches of a Christian hymn. At one
point, they are joined by three human children who died at sea when their passenger ship (presumably the Titanic) was struck by an iceberg.
Eventually Giovanni and Campanella are the only passengers remaining and Giovanni takes comfort in the fact that he and Campanella will ride together to the end of the universe. But soon Campanella must leave and Giovanni cannot follow him. As the train heads into a black hole, Giovanni wakes up
in the meadow, apparently having dreamed the whole adventure.
Back in town he learns from a classmate that less than an hour earlier Campanella had rescued a boy from the river but had disappeared underwater, and had never resurfaced. Strangely becalmed, Giovanni looks up at the night sky and declares, "Campanella is at the edge of the universe. We explored
NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD tells its allegorical tale of childhood and death in a finely-wrought picture book style that seeks to be more descriptive than action-oriented. It presents a child's eye view of the world, with the buildings and streets of town looming large and overpowering, the
open fields and night sky offering freedom, and the massive locomotive appearing dark and mysterious.
While the film is beautiful to watch, the filmmakers carefully maintain an emotional distance. The revelation that Giovanni had accompanied his friend's soul to heaven satisfies one's curiosity but registers little of the emotional impact that Americans normally seek from such a story. This
approach may, however, more closely reflect the way children actually experience such events.
Director Gisaburo Sugii went on to animate another Japanese literary work, The Tale of Genji, which has a similarly slow, careful, intricate style. The influence of the book Milky Way Railroad, can also be seen in the 1970s animated Japanese TV series, "Galaxy Express," and its subsequent feature
film adaptation, GALAXY EXPRESS 999.
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- Released: 1985
- Rating: NR
- Review: Based on a celebrated 1927 Japanese children's story, Milky Way Railroad, NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD is a feature-length animated fable set in a Mediterranean-style town with the characters drawn as anthropomorphic cats. This tale of a child who rides… (more)