CAT OF THE DAY 101: NIGHT ON THE GALACTIC RAILROAD (1985) (銀河鉄道の夜 aka GINGA TETSUDO NO YORU)
When Sugii Gisaburô, the Japanese anime maestro, was adapting Kenji Miyazawa‘s children’s classic (posthumously published in 1934) for the screen, he realised the character designs weren’t working. So he changed them all into cats.
Not that there’s anything catlike about the behaviour of young Giovanni, his friend Campanella, or any of their classmates or the other inhabitants of a small Greek-looking village. They just look like cats. With Italian names. And all the chapter headings are in Esperanto. Just because Miyazawa liked Esperanto.
Gisaburô’s film, like Miyazawa’s book, is much loved in Japan, but hardly known in the West. Giovanni is an outsider, teased at school by everyone but Campanella; on the night of the village festival, when all the other villagers are having fun together in the square, he is running errands for his sick mother, and stops to take a breather in a field.
Out of nowhere, a train pulls up in front of him. He climbs aboard and embarks on a mystical voyage through the Milky Way, travelling from the Northern to the Southern Cross. In between, Giovanni meets other travellers (including his friend Campanella) sees cosmic phenomena, and encounters drowned passengers from the Titanic (the only characters in the film who are not depicted as cats), and strange, slightly alien symbols of Christianity (Miyazawa was a devout Buddhist), that play into the themes of life, death, spirituality and self-sacrifice.
It’s a film with a unique atmosphere: dreamlike, surreal and quite melancholy, enhanced by an otherworldly score from Yellow Magic Orchestra founder member Haruomi Hosono. And it takes its time – perhaps to a degree that will be maddening to viewers more accustomed to the rapid movement and editing of today’s cinema. It’s at least half an hour before Giovanni even boards the train; prior to that there is a lot of not just scene-setting but an odd (and now nostalgic) sequence set at a printer’s, where Giovanni sets hot metal type to earn extra money. The scene adds nothing at all in terms of plot, but contributes to the sense of Giovanni’s solitude, and to the film’s oneiric quality.
The pulse rate is also slowed, quite deliberately, by Gisaburô’s animation technique. He joined the Toei Animation Company at the age of 18, in 1958, and worked with Osamu Tezuka on the seminal TV series Astro Boy (aka Tetsuwan Atomu aka 鉄腕アトム) (1963-1966) before founding Group TAC in 1969. He also worked as Animation Director on Eiichi Yamamoto’s Kanashimi no Belladonna (哀しみのベラドンナ) (1973), a psychedelic adaptation of Jules Michelet’s non-fiction history of witchcraft, La sorcière (published in 1862), which incorporated imagery inspired by artists such as Beardsley and Klimt, and the underground comics art of the late 1960s.
In Masato Ishioka’s 2012 documentary Animeshi Sugii Gisaburô, Gisaburô says, “Not all animation has to move”. Sometimes the movement can be entirely in the camera, panning across or moving in to or out from a still image. The technique of slow panning is known (according to this blog) as Jiwa-pan; slow camera movement in close-ups is Jiwa-yori; and paused motion is Tome-e. These techniques contribute to the deliberate, almost mesmeric pacing and rhythm of Night on the Galactic Railroad.
I have heard that the reason he chose to depict the characters as cats was because it was felt that the emotional intensity of what the film is really about would have been too much – for children at least – had they been human characters.
That sounds very likely. I’m just going by what he said in Masato Ishioka’s 2012 documentary Animeshi Sugii Gisaburô, which I watched immediately before the screening of Galactic Railroad – clearly he was deliberately being self-deprecating.
Either way, I like the cats, even if they’re not very catlike, and I think they add an extra dimension of magic to the film.
Inspired by Offscreen 😉
I like the fact that there’s so much to discover in this film, but it’s a little too slow.
It did seem a bit slow. I wonder if it’s just because nowadays we’re so accustomed to rapid editing and constantly moving images? Especially in animated films, where it seems quite audacious to dwell on an unchanging image for so long.
I definitely think our brains are being rewired by fast editing; on the plus side, we can probably decipher and interpret imagery much faster than audiences 100 years ago, but on the minus side perhaps we’re losing the ability (and the will) to tolerate long, uneventful takes.
I wrote this piece on the subject for the Guardian a couple of years ago: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/sep/15/long-shot-film
You should check out Cat Soup (2001)
Had completely forgotten about it till now, but I have actually seen Cat Soup. Many, many thanks for reminding me! It will make an interesting addition to Cats on Film one day soon.
A couple other “Cat” films I recently saw:
– Listen Up Philip (2014) – Elizabeth Moss and fluffy
– Goliath (2008)
Wow, Fluffy is a BIG cat. Looking forward to that – I’ve heard it’s pretty good. Will also check out Goliath. Many thanks!
In the film (Listen Up Philip), she names the cat Godzooky.
Only just got hold of a DVD of Listen Up Philip. Hope to watch it very soon.
Another good one with a talking cat named paw paw! The Future (2011), written, directed by, and stars Miranda July.