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The Forgotten: The Milky Way

A child takes a ride to the stars—or the afterlife—on a spectral steam train in this eerie Japanimation.

Night on the Galactic Railroad (1985) is an animated feature directed by Gisaburo Sugii, based on a 1930s novel by Kenji Miyazawa which appears to have some of the ethereal creepiness of The Little Prince or The Secret Garden. At any rate, it's a very odd movie, and the filmmaker's choices haven't lessened that.

For one thing, it's all set in Italy, as imagined by the Japanese, and in the 30s, as imagined from the 80s. For another thing, the characters are played by cats, for no reason. We accept this as a cartoon convention (although anime routinely present cute kids as protagonists so what gives?), although talk of hunting otters causes some low-level cognitive dissonance: if cats are people, what are otters?

The pace is wondrously slow, dreamlike and hypnotic, and we get the longest and most dramatically redundant scene of a cat setting type in a printer's workshop that I've ever seen (and obviously I've seen plenty).

Then, an hour and thirteen minutes in, some cartoon people show up, and the mind is freaked.

The lead kid/cat, Guiseppi, goes out on the night of the Festival of Stars and has what must surely be a dream in which he rides a steam train through the cosmos with his friend Campanella (a cat with, very obviously, a woman's voice). It's all slooowww in a proto-Lynchian way, with long moments spent staring at a light that periodically dims, and the recurrent, distant, reverberant clanging of the train's couplings sounding at intervals like strange alien music. And then there's the strange alien music: Haruomi Hosono's very 1980s score, which is a bit like the theme from Akira played by a heavily tranquilized soloist. Hosono accompanied Riyuchi Sakamoto in the Yellow Magic Orchestra and like his pal has a useful sideline as actor.

One charming thing about Japanese animation is the greater variety of pace: Miyazaki can do fast like you wouldn't believe, but he also likes to modulate the speed and include contemplative moments in which his characters and audience lie back and watch clouds drift, or wait for a bus. Slow does not equal boring. Well, Sugii has done that too, but here he's interested in dragging things out to a hypnotic crawl, making our eyes open wide in sympathy with his feline hero, who gazes about him with melancholy, slightly spaced-out wonderment. It's a bleak, chilly vision, with an infusion of Christian imagery and subtext that does briefly jump the rails into kitsch and sentimentality, but is mostly so agreeably peculiar that it disarms any cynicism, rather the way Borzage's faith films are constantly diverted from Sunday school sermonizing by the filmmaker's genuinely unique, personal sensibility.

The trailer gives a pretty perfect sense of this one... to the point where you could watch the trailer twenty times and it would be a lot like watching the whole movie. And that's not meant as a knock.

***

The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

Looks great, but where can you watch it? I can’t find it anywhere.
This is the problem. I don’t know if there has ever been a legal release in an English speaking territory. The version I saw had been subtitled by a fan…
There is a region 1 English DVD. I rented it from Netflix a few years ago.
Thanks for the info, Savannah!
I was able to find the whole movie, divided into segments, on youtube.
I would love to see this! Gisaburo Sugii is amazing. There’s a great post about him here, too – http://www.mangauk.com/?p=street-fighting-man
The Christian imagery ruined some bits for me (like, there MUST be a giant cross somewhere in outer space, yes), but it was hypnotic and sad like a dream that you wake up in tears from.

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