For my second and final selection from the trio of offerings served up to me as part of Reverse Thieves' Secret Santa, I'm actually genuinely curious as to the exact reason why Night on the Galactic Railroad ended up on my list of recommendations. On the one hand, I'd like to think that my Secret Santa picked up on some subtle Tweets discussing the Bungaku Shoujo movie (which relies heavily upon Kenji Miyazawa's original novel as the heart of its sustenance), but on the other hand I suspect it was simply because this movie depicts almost all of its characters as cats. Mind you, I'm fine with either option - as the much-loved meme states, a cat is fine too.
Anyhow, onwards to the actual point of this piece - my thoughts on the 1985 animated adaptation of the aforementioned novel. As is perhaps befitting of its ultimate subject matter, right from the off there's a clear disconnect between visuals and the tone of Night on the Galactic Railroad - sure, all of the characters are cats and its undeniably quite cute to see them going about their daily business at school and around town, but this is offset by the nagging, unsettling sensation that something isn't quite right here. Perhaps aware of this, the early part of the film in particular is in no rush to set its scene and get things moving, as we spend plenty of time with its protagonist Giovanni - a boy teased and borderline bullied at school on account of his errant father who is seemingly away on exploratory business, with his only real friend counted as the quiet, thoughtful Campanella.
With an ill mother and his father away, life is clearly touch for Giovanni as he tries to earn money to makes end meet and help out with everyday chores, a far cry from Campanella's much more straightforward existence. However, all of this counts for nothing when out of nowhere these two friends are whisked away on a train to who knows where upon the Galactic Railroad of the show's title. This takes the pair on a journey which introduces them to both visions and people they would otherwise never have seen, with the human element in particular taking on ever more importance as simple encounters take on a more fatalistic turn thanks to a meeting with what seem to be victims of a disaster at sea. It's this which shifts Night on the Galactic Railroad towards its true goal - a consideration of life, death, the relationship between the two and what is most important in the case of the former.
I think the only real word that can be used to describe Night on the Galactic Railroad is "fascinating" - throughout the film that aforementioned tone of foreboding continues, accentuated by the use of music, camera angles and pans and facial expressions, with the latter in particular adding a layer of discomfort as even mundane conversations are deliver in a strange, expressionless style. The only point at which this feature (which may be down to poor animation or voice acting as much as a deliberate directorial decision, it's hard to tell) becomes a detriment to the work is at the end of the movie - scenes which should be filled with emotion are instead left feeling stilted, as if scripted by a repressed Englishman who doesn't dare show any emotion.
It's issues like this that keep that "fascinating" tag in place over anything more appreciative - while some moments of the film are perfectly positioned, such as that aforementioned scene which is clearly a reference to the Titanic and I found hard to watch as it laid out the scene of its helpless victims, others aren't given the gravitas they perhaps required to create the thought-provoking piece that the film (and its original novel) is intended to be as it reaches towards its climatic treatise on life, death and the important of selflessness.
Still, despite that occasionally glaring flaw, Night on the Galactic Railroad is certainly a film well-worth watching. It's carefully crafted in general, slow but confident for the most part, and above all else it's an adaptation of an incredibly important work - it's no accident that I watched this in a week that saw Mawaru Penguindrum not so much lean on Miyazawa's story and the morals behind it as fall directly upon it in a confused and drunken heap, while I've already mentioned the use of the novel's story as part of the Bungaku Shoujo series. Thus, whether it was chosen for me for the cats or the relevance to other works of interest to me, I'm glad that my Secret Santa pushed me in the direction of watching this useful and important piece.