Read it or Weep: Night on the Galactic Railroad

Steal Read this book!

The first time I read Kenji Miyazawa’s Night on the Galactic Railroad, I was a freshman in college. I forget exactly how I came to want to read it in the first place, although I do remember that anime was involved – specifically, the 1985 movie adaptation of this book, and probably somewhere in there the anime movie about Miyazawa’s life itself, Spring and Chaos (Ihatoubu Gensou Kenji no Haru… which you may notice doesn’t translate to the English title; Spring and Chaos was actually the title of one of his poetry collections), a movie which I’ve more or less pursued for years but been repeatedly put off by the fact that a ton of the official DVD’s for the American market have dubtitles and a bunch of the ones with real subtitles were recalled… all of which means that finding the right copy is positively¬†maddening.

Anyway, the upshot is that I ended up looking into Miyazawa at all because of anime, despite the fact that I still haven’t gotten to see either Spring and Chaos or the anime adaptation of Night on the Galactic Railroad. Ah, irony!

So, I first read NotGR as a college freshman. This is only worth mentioning since the book is a children’s book… although I kind of question whether that’s a really accurate way of putting it. Maybe to a publisher it would make sense, but this is the kind of children’s book that is like Alice in Wonderland, which is to say that it is something adults would find worth reading.

The plot is fairly straightforward (spoilers ahead – skip this paragraph and the second one after it if you haven’t read the book); Giovanni is an Italian boy living in a village with his ailing mother, whom he must help take care of. He is poor and so he does not get to play around like a lot of the other boys his age. One night there is a festival, but he cannot go, and is teased by another kid. He ends up sitting down on a hill because he is tired, but drifts off to sleep and dreams of being on-board a train, along with a classmate of his, Campanella. The train rides the Milky Way, and people get on and off of the train as it goes along, including some children whom appear to be from the Titanic. Although Campanella promises that he and Giovanni can stay on the train forever, Giovanni wakes up and discovers that Campanella has apparently drowned in his effort to save a boy who has fallen into the river.

Its a very short read, as you may be able to tell from my summary. I read it in an evening after having my supper. It also isn’t quite a finished product – Miyazawa first began working on it in the early 1920’s after his sister died, and he spent the remainder of his life refining it, to the point where he still had not managed to finish it off completely by 1933. If anything, I would call it a work of love. It was published as-is in the wake of his death, and I’m happy that no one got some silly idea to try to finish it for him – its perfect the way it is, somehow its lack of final polish makes it that much more powerful and admirable. Its something that is difficult to render exactly into words. Maybe in its incompletion is just seems more heartfelt and sincere?

Anyway, I recently decided to re-read it, and I’m happy to report that none of the magic has worn off. It remains a heartbreaking book, perhaps even moreso since I knew Campanella is doomed. I also enjoyed the read since some of the religious symbolism that had been present all along was much more apparent to me on the second go-round – y’know, the go-round that occurred after I earned a degree in religion, haha.

I really do strongly recommend reading NotGR, both as an anime fan and just in general. Galaxy Express 999 was created because Leiji Matsumoto was inspired by NotGR. The short but delightful anime Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora has the book as a major plot-point; in fact, I’d say a good chunk of the viewing experience of HanTsuki is lost if you haven’t read the book. And even Aria gets in on the action, as Akari nearly gets aboard the Galactic Railroad at some point (at least, during the manga; I’m almost embarrassed to confess I’ve never seen the anime). So you’ve definitely gain some contextual awareness by reading it.

However, I don’t want to suggest that that would be the primary or best reason for reading it. You should read it because it is a good book, and the fact that it doesn’t require a large time commitment means you won’t be taking too big of a risk. The only risk is in picking a good translation, honestly – avoid the Rock Spring translation like the plague. I read the M.E. Sharpe edition, which is out of print and a bit expensive as a result – however, remember: library, library, library! That’s how I got a hold of the copy I read. Please note that this edition was entitled Night of the Milky Way Railway. There is also apparently a bilingual edition out there that is pretty good, but I’ve never seen it myself, so I can’t say anything about it (although I’m sure it’d be useful for those of you who are trying to learn the language).

And if you’re leery of reading it because its a children’s book… well… look, you’re the one watching Japanese cartoons and reading blogs about them. I’m pretty sure this would hardly be a threat to any perception of you as an adult since I’m sure anime has already killed that one for you.

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