Gauche and the Galactic Railroad

It's a bit of good timing that I showed the trailer for Night on the Galactic Railroad recently.  Ben Ettinger's newest essay at AniPages discusses the many anime adaptations of Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa.  I have a special fondness for Isao Takahata's 1982 film Gauche the Cellist, for its, ahem, "pastoral" depiction of small town rural life.  Its world shares a quiet mysticism, where the crickets play music to the trees and the stars, and the sounds of Beethoven echo in all living things.  In this world, I would almost expect the animals to stand on their hind legs, speak fluently, and share their love of music.

To me, Gauche the Cellist shares that same sense of peaceful mysticism, that playful imagination, of My Neighbor Totoro.  It probably helps to be a music lover, and I can't think of any film that honors the transcendent power of great music quite like this.  This is a world I wish to inhabit, a peaceful dream that also inhabits the waking life, where the imagination is the world.

Takahata made his mark as the psychological filmmaker. He pulled animation into the realm of the inner mind, and created a new expression in art. The expressionism of Horus, of Heidi and Marco and Anne is the expressionism of Van Gogh, of Rauoult, then fused with the humanity of Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu.

My favorite moments in Gauche the Cellist are those scenes where Beethoven's music overtakes the imagination, and world is carried away.  There's the early performance by the orchestra in a torrential storm that evokes Walt Disney's The Band Concert; there's the sight of a small room becoming the forest; there's the image of the young mouse, curled inside the cello, as nature becomes an audience for the music.

There is that image of the two mice holding the dandelions, floating in the breeze.  That shot was later quoted at the end of My Neighbors the Yamadas, and it also points back to the opening sequence from The Story of Perrine (World Masterpiece Theater, 1978).  But I am also reminded of that Miyazaki's wonderful scene where Totoro and the girls ride with the winds on a giant spinning top.  This is why Totoro and Gauche feel like cousins to me; they both communicate the same message, but told very differently, just as Miyazaki and Takahata are very different. 

Night on the Galactic Railroad, Gisaburo Suugi's 1986 movie, is different in many ways, but I believe it does share Takahata's reverence for the mystery.  It's a meditative film, very symbolic, very surreal, but not the psychedelic surrealism of Dali or Yellow Submarine.  "Dream logic" is a phrase that gets banded about too easily; I think we use those words when what we really feel is confusion.  The Fellini surrealism of Hayao Miyazaki's past decade is a good example.  If we feel confused or stuck, we can just chalk it up to "dream logic" and move along, and sometimes this works while other times it doesn't.

I think Night on the Galactic Railroad is driven by dream logic; it plays out like one long lucid dream, and the images hold quietly just long enough for us to ponder their meaning.  Perhaps the images in this movie mirror my own dreams: the long, dark corridors, the empty streets and lonely rooms, the distant, disembodies voices.  Where is the mother's voice coming from?  Perhaps she is in the next room, as the child eats his meal alone in the kitchen.  Perhaps this voice is a distant memory.  Perhaps this voice is omnipresent, like a voice on the radio.  This is how I often hear voices in my dreams.

Movies have an inherent dreamlike quality to them, with their abstract images, changing points of view, with its edits and cuts.  Is this a chicken-and-egg thing?  Do our brains mirror the patterns of movies when we dream, or is it the other way around?  Difficult to say, but it is striking that movies arose at the same time as the explosive abstraction in art.  There was a sudden push to explore the realm of the unconscious, to dive into the symbolic realm of the soul, and spill out into the ordered, waking world, where everything is neat and ordered and given proper names.  There is an exhileration to these new art forms, but there is also a terror which lies under the surface, and you can feel unsettled without quite understanding why.

Great examples range from Stravinsky's The Right of Spring, to Picasso's Cubism, to the errie quality of silent movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Calibari, or Nosferatu, or Metropolis, or The Passion of Joan of Arc.  The silent movies were more primal, more intuitive, more iconic.  They had to be, by virtue of the technology.  Only when sound was introduced and mastered have these surreal images receeded.  We have literally talked the shadows away.

These are the images from Night on the Galactic Railroad that stay with me the longest - the long, winding, empty city streets; the mass of people (well, cats) marching in the festival of lights; the dark stable where the child comes to get some milk; the cat who catches birds and stuffs them into his bag; an abandoned city, that felt like it was buried miles underground, unseen by anyone; the lights and the street signs, floating in night sky; the hypnotic hum and clack of the printing press.

This feels like a lonely movie to me.  Perhaps this is because of all the empty spaces, the dark, static images.  Perhaps I'm projecting a bit of myself into the story, from the memories of my own dreams.  Perhaps "lonely" isn't the right word at all; meditative, reflective?  "Spiritual" is another word that gets banded about, but here I think it works.  This story is a journey into the mind, into the collective unconscious, perhaps even into the realm beyond the grave.

Kenji Miyazawa wrote Night on the Galactic Railroad in order to mourn the death of his sister.  It was never completed in his short lifetime.  In his own way, Gisaburo Suugi captured that spirit in his film, that yearning, that curiosity, that haunting echo of a lost loved one.   There's really no way to describe what that is like until it happens to you, and you bury your friends and loved ones.  Their spirits haunt your mind like a phantom limb that never heals.


asuka said...

are you familiar with kawamori's spring and chaos?
it's a more uncomfortable viewing experince than night on the galactic railroad, but just as memorable, i think.

Chris said...

Daniel said, Great examples range from Stravinsky's The Right of Spring, to Picasso's Cubism, to the errie quality of silent movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Calibari, or Nosferatu, or Metropolis, or The Passion of Joan of Arc.

I think it would be very apt to include Yuri Norstein's Tale of Tales in a list of examples. Talk about dream images!

Asuka said, are you familiar with kawamori's spring and chaos?

The English DVD of this film has, unfortunately, been discontinued, but you can find a copy here:

Also, I really, really recommend reading the original novel. I have a pdf file of it with both the Japanese version and the English version together. (The novel is public domain, but you can buy some translated copies through Amazon, but many people complain about the translations available.)

The word "novel" might be misleading because it is quite short and can be read very quickly, but it really fleshes out the inner lives of the characters which the film is unable to do. The scene with the bird catcher is very delicate and moving in the novel, but in the film there is much less a sense of loss when the bird catcher leaves.

I wish there was some way I could post this pdf film here on this blog. Daniel, do you have any idea?

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@asuka: No, I've never heard of Spring and Chaos. I should check it out one of these days.

@chris: Ah, yes! Yuri Norstein, the greatest of all animators! Hedgehog in the Fog and Tale of Tales are two of my favorite movies. I have a DVD of his films in my library. It was released in Canada and is a joy to bring out and watch every once in a while.

I'm afraid I don't know how to host a .pdf file. I'm sure it's very simple, but the technical stuff just confuses me. It's really a miracle this website looks as good as it does, frankly. I knew my way inside and out of an Apple IIe, and it's been downhill ever since.

Thanks for the Raiden link. That site is a Godsend.

Chris said...

By the way, re-reading my post, I realize my thought process might be confusing: When I talk about reading the original novel, I'm not talking about Spring and Chaos; I'm talking about Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Sorry for any confusion.

Anyway, the novel is really nice. I think the translation I have is a fan translation. As such, there is no poetry at all to the translated prose. It gets the meaning across, but that's all. Still, the original narrative breaks through and there are some touching and magical moments.

The only in print English translation is available here:

But if you'll read the reviews, it sounds like an awful translation. All the original Italian names have been changed to Japanese names, ex. Giovanni is now Kenji. Why, why, why? I don't recommend this book, but it's the only version you can buy new and hold in your hands.

Perhaps I can upload my pdf to a file sharing site like Mr. Sobieniak did with his copy of Warriors of the Wind. I'll see what happens.

Chris said...

I think I found a nice way to share documents . . . and they'll remain on line for a long time, so we don't have to worry about them vanishing too soon.

This is a link to a document sharing website called

There I've uploaded both Kenji Miyazawa's "Night on the Milky Way Train" and Alexander Hill Key's "The Incredible Tide" which was the inspiration for Future Boy Conan. (I just took that one from the wonderful site.)

After people have had time to read Night on the Milky Way Train, I'd love to have a few discussions comparing the original novel to its film adaptation.

(I hope this is something useful for you Daniel. Sorry if it's not.)

(P.P.S. or whatever . . . Daniel, I just noticed in the final paragraph of your post you wrote Kenji Miyazaki! Ha! That's a great Freudian slip. I like it!)

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

That's a terrific way to share your finds, Chris. Thanks a lot! It's always helpful.

Yeah, I keep typing "Miyazaki" when it's supposed to be "Miyazawa." I'm really a clutz when it comes to typing nn a keybpoard. I really would never be able to function with a typewriter. Make a mistake on those things and you're screwed. Thank God those wretched machines went extinct.

Interesting that you have Alexander Ksy's "The Incredible Tide." Hayao Miyazaki really was not impressed with that story. He agreed to adapt it on the grounds that he could make sweeping changes in his show. This is really the first example of his irreverence when adapting outside stories for his films. Kiki and Howl are the other big examples.

Anonymous said...

There's a clip of the opening of Ihatov Gensou Kenji no Haru (Spring and Chaos) on YouTube which gives you a good idea of what this film is like. Stunning and essential viewing for anyone with more than a passing interest in Miyazawa Kenji.

When it comes to dream images you can't beat Jan Svankmajer's Neko z Alenky (Alice). More nightmare than dream though and very unsettling. I'm surprised you never mention Svankmajer as he's one of the most original and creative animators around.

There are several more translations of Kenji's short stories online that are worth reading, especially as they were partly the inspiration for Tonari no Totoro. Sadly, as with all English translations of Kenji's works they lose much of the poetry of the Japanese originals. Donguri to Yamaneko (Wildcat and the Acorns) and Yuki Watari (Crossing Snow) There are anime versions of these stories too ( and or,3426,aqjstp,yuki_watari.html).

Anonymous said...

You wrote Kenji Miyazawa's name as "Kenji Miyazaki" there in the last paragraph, lol. Simple mistake!

Daniel Thomas MacInnes said...

@anon: Me fail English? That's unpossible!

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