Journey along a Starlit River: A Night on the Galactic Railroad


A Night on the Galactic Railroad was a pre-WWII Japanese children’s novel published in 1927.  It was written by celebrated author Kenji Miyazawa.  This film is a highly spiritual Japanese children’s anime.  The plot combines an allegorical mishmash of basic principles from Buddhism, Shintoism and Christianity.

The beginning of this animated children’s classic establishes the local environment that surrounds the main characters Giovanni, Campanella, and Giovanni’s sickly mother.  Giovanni is on a quest to acquire milk for his sick mother.  Whilst this is going on, the people in town are celebrating the Festival of Stars.  Before he gets the milk, he journeys through the town and observes the celebration in progress.  There is much singing, dancing, and excitement going on as he passes by.

The two main characters are Giovanni and Campanella.  They have known each other since they were very young because of the friendship shared by their respective fathers. Instead of incorporating human characters like the original children’s novel does, anime director/creator Gisaburō Sugii decided to use erect walking cat-like beings.  It was a very creative choice. 

Giovanni walks down a path leading to the outskirts of town and beyond.  He stops upon a distant grassy hill nearby a starlit river.  Out of nowhere an enormous steam locomotive appears before him! 

Thus, Giovanni begins his metaphysical journey aboard the Galactic Railroad.  Suddenly, Campanella appears right out of thin air!  He then takes the passenger seat directly across from Giovanni.  Their journey begins!  The train makes many stops to various locations with each new one being more wonderful and awe inspiring than the last.  They pass through many uniquely abstract and colourful galactic landscapes. 

During their journey they encounter a wide variety of spirits which constantly appear and then vanish when they reach their destinations.  Some will be reincarnated while others are simply travelling to other spiritual dimensions such as heaven.

Reaching the end of the universe, Campanella disembarks the train in the same manner that he boarded.  Trying to catch him, Giovanni runs after him with tears in his eyes.  He does not want his friend to go but in the end realises that his lifelong friend must now embark upon the next stage of his spiritual journey. 

Giovanni later discovered that Campanella had tragically drowned in an attempt to save another friend who fell into the river during the Festival of Stars.  Giovanni wished to become like the Flame of Scorpio, burning brightly so that Campanella might have a better existence in his next life. Perhaps he is reincarnated as a star in their native galaxy?  Does he journey to another astral plane?  There is no right or wrong interpretation of this film’s vaguely open ending. 

I have never seen a Japanese anime quite like Night on the Galactic Railroad. Much like the boiler of this film’s metaphorical steam locomotive, the movie starts off with a slow burn and builds as its pressure intensifies.  This anime fills me with a sense of childlike awe and wonder! 

The spiritual metaphor used in this film simultaneously engages my intellect as well as my emotions.  Kenji Miyazawa’s classic story is a must have for animation lovers all over the world!

Written by Carl William Zeigler

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