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.