If you engage in any sort of Japanese media commonly exported to the West, there’s a good chance that you’ve been exposed in some way to the imagery in Miyazawa Kenji’s Night on the Galactic Railroad. Whether through the book, the movie, or the countless scenes inspired by them, the journey of Giovanni and Campanella has become a sort of collective childhood experience for those that grew up in Japan in the last 100 years. It is a story that quietly shares what it has to say in the hopes that the reader finishes with a little more insight on what it means to live.
At this point I have to mention that this book cannot be discussed while avoiding a detail that is made explicit at the very end of the book. It cannot be understood without this piece of context. While I think knowing this enhances the experience, it is technically a spoiler that I will make no attempt to hide.
My first introduction to Miyazawa’s writing was in the prologue of Sakura no Uta. The two line epigraph from Haru to Shura sets the tone for that uniquely poetic and contemplative scene. Night on the Galactic Railroad uses the same poetic voice through its entirety. If I had to use one word to describe the writing, that word would be Impressionistic. Great care is taken to evoke the landscape of the Milky Way. There is always some color, sound, motion, or warmth being brought to life by words, and it is no wonder that the animated movie is just as evocative. This immersion is a necessary exercise in expanding the mind, a momentary attunement to the imperceivable cosmos.
Don’t go into the river
There is something romantic about the marine journey that inspires human beings to contemplate the nature of their existence. The one way flow that carries its passengers from port to port. The hopeless struggle with the forces of Nature. The alien landscape so different than home. Giovanni’s celestial train ride shares characteristics common in stories that happen on boats. It is no coincidence. The two words for Milky Way, 天の川 and 銀河, both share characters for river. When Campanella jumps off the boat in the village river, he then embarks on the train that travels the Milky Way. This aquatic connection between the physical world and spiritual world is a motif that repeats itself throughout the book. A party drowns at sea after their ship strikes an iceberg. A scorpion drowns in a well while running from a weasel. Death is the permanent submersion into a liquid 4th dimension, where the trains run on alcohol not coal.
Just as Giovanni declares to his mother he will only watch the river from the banks, the living are strictly observers, not partakers of the journey of those that die before us. As the progress deeper into the Milky Way, Giovanni becomes more aware of the distance between him and Campanella. While they are both riding on the same train, they are traveling on separate paths, for Giovanni has a ticket unique to those still living, one that can take him anywhere in the incomplete, illusory 4th dimension that the Galactic Railroad runs through.
Existence in Miyazawa’s 4th dimension spreads wide without limit. It is existence without constraint, one that can be described as idealistic or heavenly. To call such an existence incomplete seems paradoxical. So what makes the 3-dimensional space we live in so special?
Let’s consider again the idea that the 4th dimension is liquid in nature. Liquids fill the space they are contained in, and in the absence of a container or external forces, they would spread evenly in every direction. Despite being simultaneously everywhere at once, a liquid existence is unable to maintain it’s own form. It is the unique privilege of the living to take ideas from a limitless span of existence and give them physical form. As long as we are live, we have the possibility to make anything out of our existence. But while we all become passengers on the 4th dimension’s Galactic Railroad, what we accomplished while we were living still leaves an imprint on where we arrive after death.
There is nothing better than doing just the amount of work that’s fit for your body
The first and most enigmatic passenger that Giovanni and Campanella meet is a scruffy bird catcher who catches herons and cranes. The birds are actually candy, and the two dismiss them as merely just that. But the process of creating this candy, the process of catching the birds, is a spectacle in and of itself. Flocks of herons fall from the sky like snow. They land on the sands of the Milky Way and spread out over the sand like melting snow, like molten bronze poured out from the furnace (here we see the Milky Way take the literal form of a river in accordance to its name in Japanese). And in the middle of this mass descent, there is the bird catcher, pulling the falling birds into his sack before they can touch the sand. The captured herons must then be specially prepared in order to evaporate the mercury (liquid metal) that composes them.
Bird catching is an allegory for the craft that the bird catcher had honed throughout his life. While it may be easy to dismiss the birds as ordinary candy, the process of creating them is an art. It is a process that captures ideas born in the 4th dimension and gives them form (removing the liquid) before they dissipate. It doesn’t matter that the result is just candy to everyone else, it is the product that his body is best suited to give to the world. The idea that there is something each individual is best suited to give is the core principal of Miyazawa’s philosophy of happiness.
I do not know what happiness is
The passengers repeatedly ask what they can do to make others happy. Campanella asks how he can make his mother happy. The teacher asks the same for his students. The passengers never ask about what they can do for themselves. There is a common understanding among them that the path to true happiness is a winding mountain pass, where each step is a hardship undergone for the sake of what is right. Even then, they have doubts over their sacrifices. Did Campanella sacrificing himself to save Zeneli make his mother happy? Was it really the happier outcome for the children not to be placed on a lifeboat? Despite having the same desire to do what is right, they reach opposite conclusions as to whether saving a life and letting them die is the right thing to do. The passengers have a vague awareness of the existence of one true God, but their Gods are different, and they go to different heavens when they die. There is no convincing argument for one God or another. Miyazawa himself was a Buddhist, a religion without any gods. All that’s given are questions to ponder and a prayer that we all stand before the same true God one day.
We never learn why Giovanni was on the train that night. As the bird catcher suggested, they all simply came there from far away. All we can hope to know is where we want to be when we too become a part of the 4th dimension, and the sacrifices we make while we are living take us there. The journey may be lonely at times. We won’t always know what we can do to make others happy. But there are some out there whose own form of sacrifice is to guide us through that meditation.
The copy I had available was the Aoitori Bunko edition. That particular label was targeted towards younger readers, meaning that some kanji would be replaced with kana, and every kanji would have furigana by it. This makes the text more accessible for the targeted age group, maybe around 5th or 6th grade, and it can be a confidence booster having the reading easily available if there is a word you need to look up. There are also footnotes and inline definitions that explain words a more modern reader might not be familiar with. On the other hand, for more advanced readers, this version can be a bit tricky to read as there are at times long strings of kana that can be hard to decipher without the original kanji. If you’re an intermediate learner that still struggles with kanji, reading with this edition may be a worthwhile challenge.