The Anime Adaptations of Miyazawa Kenji: Night on the Galactic Railroad and Gauche the Cellist


Today, I cover two of the most highly acclaimed anime adaptations of Miyazawa Kenji’s stories.

(If you want to know why you should care about Miyazawa Kenji, I covered the background and context in my last post.)

If there are any two Kenji adaptations you should watch, it’s Night of the Galactic Railroad (1985) and Gauche the Cellist (1982). Yes, they’re around thirty years old now and they’re both “slow” and hard to get into, especially when you’re used to the shiny new stuff, but I think they’re well worth any anime fan’s time.

One thing I really enjoy about anime based on classic literature and children’s tales (as opposed to manga, light novels, etc.) is that you can see the director is a lot more willing to inject some of his or her own personality into the adaptation. The adaptations of NotGR and GtC are as different as night and day, and both of them add their own particular atmosphere to the original tale. Part of this has to do with how they’re movie-length adaptations of short stories, but I also think these directors have a genuine love and admiration for Kenji’s writing. They make Kenji’s stories their own.

Gauche the Cellist

Originally, I wasn’t going to discuss Gauche the Cellist, but as soon as I found out Takahata Isao directed it, I just had to give it a whirl. For those of you who don’t know, Takahata was the co-founder of Studio Ghibli, and his impressive directorial record includes Grave of the Fireflies, arguably Ghibli’s most emotionally powerful film. 

Gauche is as far from a soul-crushing war drama as you could get, though. It’s got more in common with Pom Poko, which also features animals as human-like characters. Animals are definitely Takahata’s strongest suit as a director. Probably the most interesting thing about Gauche is how expressive the animals in particular are and how the natural world seems to come alive even with limited animation.

This entire animation sequence with the spasming cat was the most memorable part of the film
This entire sequence with the overreacting cat was the most memorable part of the film

I suppose the credit for that scene should really go to the key animator Saida Toshitsugu; unlike most anime directors, Takahata doesn’t actually draw himself. He does take charge with the script work and storyboarding, though, so most of his works have his distinct vision stamped all over it.

In Gauche’s case, it’s Takahata’s careful juxtaposition of the realistic and the fantastical that comes through most strongly. Gauche opens with shots of a rural town as torrential rain pours, grounding the film’s setting in the mundane even as the Beethoven soundtrack takes the fore. The viewer is immediately taken into a magical, dreamlike world, just from the power of the musical score alone. And that’s not an incidental choice – the entire story is about the power of music to change us, if only we could just open our ears and be receptive to the world.

Takahata is careful to establish the film’s setting in prewar Japan, more so than the original story did. One scene, original to the film, depicts Gauche and his fellow members of the orchestra performing the background music to a silent film. When the talking animals appear, one after another, it’s all presented as just a matter-of-fact part of everyday life.

gauche 7

gauche 8

It’s ambiguous whether Gauche is personally familiar with these animals. It’s also unclear whether the other human characters are aware of them as he is. He treats the talking animals like bothersome neighbours for the most part. In fact, a good deal of the story, characters and setting are left totally unexplained. But I do think that’s part of the story’s charm – it’s vague in a way that makes it feel allegorical. It occupies that space halfway between realism and fantasy, where the real makes the imagination seem all the more fantastic, and the fantasy makes the real seem so much more vibrant.

It’s telling that the most truly vibrant pieces of animation come into play when Gauche becomes lost in his music. Make no mistake, this film is an ode to music in all its different styles and forms, from the classical music of Beethoven to the experimental beats of “Tiger Hunting in India“, all the way to the organic sounds of nature. During these segments, the world onscreen seems so alive, yet in a rather understated way. There’s one particularly magical scene depicting the tanuki playing drums against Gauche’s cello. After focusing on a closeup of the tanuki’s face, the camera zooms out to show a picturesque view of the night outside. There’s no movement besides Gauche and the tanuki’s playing.

gauche 5

gauche 6I’m particularly fond of the detail that went into animating Gauche’s finger movements as he plays the cello. Though it’s not 100% realistic, Gauche’s playing sounded exactly how I imagined him from reading the story. His errors sounded totally natural, rather than comically bad. Gauche’s choice to play Tiger Hunting In India (an invented song) at the end was entirely fitting for his character. The song felt amateur and atonal, but it was still music. It was captivating.

This film really does nail how it feels to be an amateur musician, discovering for yourself just how delightful improvised music can be. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Whispers of the Heart, even though Takahata didn’t direct that. It made me really want to start playing my violin along to the music. Gauche the Cellist is a great film for musicians and anyone who likes nature.

Night on the Galactic Railroad

Originally, I was planning to compare the 1985 film to the 2007 version, but I wasn’t able to find a copy of the 2007 version on the internet. From what I’ve heard, the 2007 film is simply someone reading out the story against pretty CG background art, so unlike the almost two-hour-long feature film, there’s not all that much content to parse through.

If one could make a claim for a “definitive adaptation”, the 1985 film would certainly be it. Although it feels darker and moodier than the original story, the film completely nails the thematic core of the story – the tragic friendship between Giovanni and Campanella. I admit it: I teared up a little at the end.

Why can't these two be together forever???
Why can’t these two be together forever???

Given my only familiarity with director Sugii Gisaburou’s work is the shower scene from Street Fighter II (lol) I don’t have an awful lot to compare NotGR to. It does remind me of a more somber Kino’s Journey, given its subdued characterisation, the journey through exotic locale and the Buddhist philosophy permeating the entire narrative. But the experience of watching NotGR is one of a kind.

One of the creative decisions that stands out immediately, even to those who haven’t watched the film is – why cats? The characters were human in the original story. The MAL synopsis really makes it sound like this was a decision made out of laziness or lack of budget: “presumably to avoid the problems of animating humans”, huh?

The film designs in NotGR are actually based off the manga version drawn by Masumura Hiroshi, who explains his reasoning behind the decision in an interview: “The second you set down a human face to this story, it changes the feeling of the story entirely, defining it around your own image, and I wanted to avoid that. I wouldn’t have bothered to give it this much thought if the story didn’t mean as much to me as it does.”

Why might this be an issue? In the original novella, Kenji chooses to give his characters Italian names but refrains from describing them physically in detail. He also assigns them recognisably Japanese values, especially when it comes to their outlook towards the afterlife. Kenji deftly juggles the familiar and the unfamiliar, inviting readers to imagine the characters as they wish. This naturally causes some problems for adaptations, because the ethnicity of the characters is as symbolically important as it is ultimately irrelevant. The film manages to avoid addressing the ethnicity issue by turning the main characters into cats. It’s a clever decision because talking animals feel recognisably human, and yet they’re not quite the same. It’s an approximation of the effect of the original story.

Interestingly enough, there are humans aboard the Galactic Railroad too
Interestingly enough, there are still humans aboard the Galactic Railroad

What’s so remarkable about Sugii’s NotGR is how little so much of the philosophy is verbalised. In fact, Sugii goes out of his way to cut out the moralising dialogue present in the original, preferring instead to show his ideas through subtle visual cues. This results in a film that consists almost entirely of long pauses, and when the characters do speak, one gets the sense that they are not really having a conversation. The characters all wear curiously blank faces, even as they’re witnessing some frankly bizarre sights.

As alienating as this may seem, the film never lets you forget that it’s a deeply human story. The voice acting is superb and makes up for what is deliberately missing from the script. As you’d expect from Tanaka Mayumi (the voice actress of Luffy from One Piece), she portrays a convincing sense of boyishness in Giovanni. With his wide, unblinking eyes and his devotion towards his best friend and mother, Giovanni comes across as an adorable nice kid. But he’s also a lonely kid who seems to have quietly suffered through so many disappointments in his relatively short life. We are told his father is missing and that his mother is ill. It is only when he is with Campanella that Giovanni’s boyishness comes through his mannerisms.

Note Giovanni's body language
Note the body language

Campanella is more of a cipher. Perhaps the most we get to see of his innermost thoughts is when he confesses to Giovanni that he does not want to make his mother sad. He knows from the outset that he will never return from his voyage into the Milky Way. Yet when Giovanni says to Campanella, “We’ll always be together, won’t we?” Campanella responds yes. Perhaps he believes that he always will be with Giovanni, in a sense. Perhaps he wished for Giovanni to be with him on his final journey as his way of saying goodbye. It’s widely acknowledged that Kenji was inspired to write the story after his sister’s death, and those moments of quiet companionship and haunting loss hit very close to home.

There’s a ton of depth to NotGR’s religious symbolism which I won’t delve into in this post. Buddhism is really not my area of expertise. But if you are interested in Kenji’s religious ideas, here’s a good blog post that introduces some of the ideas to you, along with a summary of the story proper.

But the basic ideas in NotGR? The search for true happiness? Finding the will to move past loss? It’s all universal. NotGR made me feel things few films ever make me feel. Some of the key scenes, like the sinking of the Titanic and the heron catcher, will stick with me for a long time to come. This film is a powerful adaptation of a powerful novella. I heartily recommend you check it out for yourselves and come to your own interpretations about the symbolism, as Kenji no doubt intended.

notgr 1
This was my favourite animation sequence in the film

And that’s that for my Miyazawa Kenji coverage, guys! I’ve written over 3000 words (including my previous post) and by my reckoning I’ve only barely touched on what makes Kenji’s stories so great. But my hope is that I’ve introduced you to some great older anime, the type which doesn’t often get written about on anime blogs.

By the way, if you’re interested in reading more about Night on the Galactic Railroad and Gauche the Cellist, there’s an excellent post on the Ghibli Blog.

Now back to fanboying over ecchishit for my next post… ;)


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