Wednesday 8 November 2023

Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad

In Japan, riding a steam train through outer space is a melancholy symbol of the human journey. Like the gentle drift of the sakura petal, the whistle of a train means a transition in life. That human quality... those melancholy, bittersweet coming of age lessons... were inherited from renowned writer Kenji Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad, whose own life was a tragic and all-too brief spark snuffed out early.  

Published posthumously in 1934 as part of his collected works, Ginga Tetsudou no Yoru (translated variously as Night on the Galactic RailroadNight of the Milky Way Train, The Celestial Railroad, and Fantasy Railroad in the Stars) underwent constant revision since its genesis in 1924 and none of the versions available to date are "complete" so far as the author's final wishes go. Nevertheless, being incomplete in itself gives Night on the Galactic Railroad its own poignancy. 

Its most immediate grounding comes with the death of Miyazawa's sister Toshi in 1922. Kenji left his home in Hanamaki, Iwate prefecture, the year before out of disgust with his family's business and friction with its patriarch. The son of a pawnbroker, Kenji became ever more sensitive to the disparity between his family and the surrounding farmers from whom his family gained its wealth. He converted to the more activist Nichiren sect of Buddhism, drawing him into a protracted conflict with his father until he left in 1921. Sadly, he returned to his sister's deathbed. Until his death from pneumonia in 1933, Miyazawa stayed in the Hanamaki area, becoming an author, schoolteacher and improver of conditions for the people of the region. 

His first work, The Restaurant of Many Orders, was self-published in 1924, followed by as many volumes of story and verse as he could save his wages up to print. At the Hanamaki Agriculture School he emphasized personal experience, pulling his students out of the classroom and into the fields more often than he let them sit at a desk. Miyazawa strove to inculcate an appreciation of nature, geology, and astronomy in the young, as well as an appreciation of the arts. Music, poetry and theatre were also subjects which he encouraged, organizing public recitals of works created by the students. In 1926 he gave up teaching at the school to form the Rasu Farmers Association. Its object was to modernize the way of life of farmers, in addition to fostering scientific and cultural pursuits. Among his activities, he introduced new and hardier strains of rice, as well as hosting European classical music listening parties on his gramophone, one of the only (if not the only) in Hanamaki. 

His personal philosophy is exemplified in his poem Ame ni mo Makezu, discovered in a notebook after his death:
Unbeaten by the rain 
Unbeaten by the wind
Bested by neither snow nor summer heat
Strong of body
Free of desire
Never angry
Always smiling quietly
Dining daily on four cups of brown rice
Some miso and a few vegetables
Observing all things
Leaving myself out of account
But remembering well
Living in a small, thatched-roof house
In the meadow beneath a canopy of pines
Going east to nurse the sick child
Going west to bear sheaves of rice for the weary mother
Going south to tell the dying man there is no cause for fear
Going north to tell those who fight to put aside their trifles
Shedding tears in time of drought
Wandering at a loss during the cold summer
Called useless by all
Neither praised
Nor a bother
Such is the person
I wish to be

Ame ni mo Makezu became an anthem for the whole of Japan in 2011, in the wake of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, which especially hit Miyazawa's prefecture of Iwate hard. It was famously read by actor Ken Watanabe in remembrance of the disaster.  

Immediately after the death of Toshi, Kenji took a trip to the far northern island of Sakhalin. Long hours aboard the railways running across Japan left him with much time to reflect on feelings of death and loss, regret, loneliness, true happiness and that which makes for a well-lived life. Those reflections distilled into Night on the Galactic Railroad

The novella opens with Giovanni, a boy from an impoverished family, sitting in school at the mercy of his tormentors. Because of his mother's illness and his own need to work to get them by, he has been unable to make connections and spend time with his classmates. The result is his desperate loneliness at their cruel hands. One insult they get a great deal of mileage out of the absence of his father, a sailor. Giovanni looks forward to the return of an idealized stable and positive influence in his life. His classmates, on the other hand, are convinced of the rumour that he went off on an illegal hunt for otter furs and has been arrested. Constantly they taunt Giovanni with the question of whether his dad will bring him back an otter-skin coat. His only friend is Campanella, one of the most popular kids. Giovanni and Campanella's fathers were friends and the two grew together in a pitying sort of way. Campanella doesn't really need Giovanni, but he recognizes that Giovanni needs him. This friendship leads to a shared trip aboard the Galactic Railroad on the night of the Centaurus Festival. 

After being taunted again by the other kids, Giovanni fled from the riverbanks where lanterns were being floated to lie alone on a hilltop, gazing at the stars. Suddenly a light flashed, a voice cried out "Milky Way Station!" and Giovanni found himself inside the carriage of a steam train, sitting across from a soaking wet Campanella. Next stop, Swan Station in the constellation of Cygnus. The Milky Way, that great band of stars of which every society has some significant mythology, is known in Japan as "Amano-gawa," the "Heavenly River." In Miyazawa's prose it becomes a glittering river flanked by silvery pampas grass and star-like beacons. Each constellation is a station along the railway, with its own lessons. 

At Cyngus, the pair meet a palaentologist digging up the remains of a prehistoric cow. He exclaims that the excavation is necessary to demonstrate a multi-layered understanding of reality, poetic and scientific. Other people, without that appreciation, may just see "wind and water and empty sky." At Scorpio they hear the story of the scorpion who spent his life feeding on others but fled into a well when something came along to eat him. Fearful at his cowardice and lamenting his useless death, he prayed to be somehow made useful for others and became the constellation burning bright. The arrival of a group of passengers from a tragic sunken ship begets a discussion about necessity, God, the nature of happiness and the ability to reign one's fate. When the train arrives at the Northern Cross, the former passengers of this ocean liner which struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic are instructed to depart... God is calling them to Heaven. Giovanni and Campanella stay behind, the former pledging to ride the rails with his friend forever. Some destinies, however, are unavoidable and all that matters is to make the time one has mean the most it possibly can.

In 1985, the story was adapted to an anime feature film that is the most accessible version available to the Western world. The symbolism and themes of the film version are all but impenetrable, but nevertheless, it is a strikingly beautiful "renaissance" tale befitting the renaissance man that was Kenji Miyazawa. Because Night on the Galactic Railroad is such a short novella, the film is practically verbatim. It does toy with the aesthetics of the story, most notably in its depiction of the two boys as anthropomorphic cats. 

The complete Night on the Galactic Railroad with English dubbing.

Just as obtuse, but also just as satisfying, is Spring and Chaos (1996) by Shoji Kawamori of Macross and Escaflowne fame. A biographical film about Miyazawa, the human actors are replaced with cats in homage to Night on the Galactic Railroad and the film is decidedly non-linear and highly artistic. In fact, unless one has the benefit of an intimate understanding of Miyazawa through other biographical resources, and a working knowledge of his stories, much of the film is reduced to appreciating abstract animation art for its own sake. Like other biographies of universally (or at least nationally) well-known figures, the specific historical facts aren't as interesting or as necessary as the insight into the mind of the figure that a new film may reveal. At least in regards to this topic, the insights are visually stunning. The creation of Night on the Galactic Railroad is symbolically illustrated by a train carrying Miyazawa's sister into a clockwork underworld. Images of this clockwork underworld, through which spirits drift between gears emblazoned with Buddhist icons, figure throughout. Night on the Galactic Railroad and the resolution of Miyzawa's inner turmoils are climatically realized in the most magnificent cosmic steam train launch in cinema. Imagine a pair of steam trains, one black and the other white, rising up from the earth like space shuttles, plumes of smoke in their wake, lifting into the evening sky and intertwining like dragons or strands of DNA, all to a choral crescendo. This is the celestial steam train flight to meet and transcend all.   

The complete English subtitled version of Spring and Chaos.

Yet Miyazawa was not merely a poet. He was the epitome of Scientific Romanticism, for whom a scientific understanding of nature was a vehicle to its transcendental appreciation. It is only fitting, then, that his work became the basis for a global planetarium show titled The Celestial Railroad. Though available on the small screen, it is done its greatest turn by seeing it as it was meant to be seen. Animated by digital artist Yutaka Kagaya with music by brother Rei Kagaya, it is a rare example of overdone fantasy-style art done right. The luminous qualities of the Milky Way described by Miyazawa's Night on the Galactic Railroad are translated perfectly, then increased to tremendous proportions. 

In order to familiarize English-speaking audiences, the dubbed version of The Celestial Railroad only partially adapts the narrative while explaining a great deal about Miyazawa, the book, and the astronomical facts underlying it. Much of the symbolism is revealed as having its basis in true constellations, justifying its playing in scientific institutions. Kagaya also brings other elements of the story back down to their historical precedents. For example, Miyazawa describes individual stars as being triangular signposts. The 1985 film abstracts these into flying neon shapes. The Celestial Railroad, on the other hand, draws them directly from historical surveying posts. Unfortunately, The Celestial Railroad was produced in 2006, and that is an eternity in the market of planetarium shows. One may have to content themselves with what is found online.

The complete Celestial Railroad with English fansubbing.

The soundtrack to The Celestial Railroad is beautiful and melancholy, but few Japanese composers are of the rank of Joe Hisaishi. Most famous for his accompaniment to Hayao Miyazaki's films, Hisaishi composed his own concept album to the novel in 1996. The title - Nokto De La Galaksia Fervojo - employs Esperanto, the invented "universal language" that captivated Miyazawa and figures throughout adaptations of his work. Like many advocates for the language, Miyazawa also believed that Esperanto could unite humanity as a universal second language. Signage in the 1985 anime film is also written in Esperanto. A familiar concept through Miyazawa's work is "Ihatov," which is understood to be his home region of Iwate translated into Esperanto. However, his Ihatov represents more than where he lives... It also represents a Romantic, imaginative ideal of that region and a vision for its future.  

The complete Nokto De La Galaksia Fervojo by Joe Hisaishi.

Speaking of Studio Ghibli, they have added their touch to other works of Miyazawa over time. In 1982, before the creation of the studio, eventual co-founder Isao Takahata directed Gauche the Cellist, based on Miyazawa's story about a musician unwittingly trained by the creatures of nature. In 2006, Ghibli background painter Kazuo Oga directed his first and only film, The Night of Taneyamagahara. The story demonstrates Miyazawa's enlightened comprehension of nature full of life and animated beings, including the plants themselves.

Trailer for Gauche the Cellist

The complete The Night of Taneyamagahara with English subtitles.

Where Kenji's work has inspired musicians like Joe Hisaishi, we only know of one song actually written by him. Hoshi Meguri No Uta is a simple, lullaby-like tune that outlines a trip through outer space, complimenting Night on the Galactic Railroad very well:

Akai medama no sasori
Hirogeta washi no tsubasa
Aoi medama no koinu
Hikari no hebi no toguro
ORION wa takaku utai
Tsuyu to shimoto o otosu

ANDOROMEDA no kumo wa
Sakana no kuchi no katachi
Ooguma no ashi o kita ni
Itsutsu nobashita tokoro
Koguma no hitai no ue wa
Sora no meguri no meate

The scorpion with eyes of red
The eagle's wings outstretched
The little dog with eyes of blue
The coils of the snake of light
High above, Orion sings
Felling the dew and the branches

The clouds of Andromeda
Are the shape of a fish's mouth
If you extend the length of the Great Bear's paw
Five times northwards
Above the Little Bear's forehead
Is the guide to our tour of the skies
The song has been covered countless times and is a favourite of Japanese performers. It closed out the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and has appeared in numerous anime, including the visual novel Planetarian and its anime adaptation.

Hoshi Meguri no Uta from the Planetarian visual novel OST.

Closing ceremonies of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. The
performance of Hoshi Meguri no Uta and Clair de Lune, honouring
the torch being passed from Tokyo to the Paris 2024 Summer Olympics,
begins at approximately 2:53:00. 

The appeal of Kenji Miyazawa lies primarily in his distinctively Japanese parallel to the project of Scientific Romanticism. As originally conceived, Romanticism was a rejection  of Enlightenment values of pure rationalism and objectivity. It rejected both the atomistic individualism of the Enlightenment as well as its conviction in the "scientific" organization of society, preferring concepts of individualism rooted in experiential and creative genius as well as a sense of community grounded in ethnic, "folk" identity. Romanticism placed emphasis on the personal, experiential, emotional, intuitive, and the creative.

However, rare minds came along that proposed a synthesis of this thesis and antithesis. The "Scientific Romanticism" of writers like Jules Verne understood that science and technology could be vehicles to the transcendental appreciation of nature. The lone Romantic genius could be a man of science. This is typified by Captain Nemo, the lone genius whose Nautilus is a technological capsule for exploring the romance of the ocean depths while carrying within it all that is good and beautiful of the surface world. 

Miyazawa, half-a-century later, is one of those rare minds. The contemporary, unromantic industrial technology of the steam train becomes, in his hands, a vehicle to traverse the great Celestial River. And more than that, it becomes a psychopomp, a vehicle to traverse the liminal space between life and death. A journey on this clanking, smoke-belching mechanism is a journey through the meaning of life. Likewise, an excavation for fossils becomes an excavation through the psychological layers of human existence.

All this he does through a distinctively Japanese lens. He embraces learning, science, music, the arts, and the fashions of the West - one of the most famous photos of him is in a bowler hat and overcoat - but like his country, these were carefully embraced and synthesized with core Japanese cultural and spiritual ideals. His visions of animate nature are less in the European or American transcendental vein and instead rooted deeply in Shinto's worship of the kami, the gods and goddesses of nature. Whereas Romanticism in Europe yielded Romantic Nationalism and Gothic Revivalism, comparable ideals drew Miyazawa to Nichiren Buddhism. Founded by the 13th-century Buddhist priest after whom it was named, Nichiren Buddhism was a reforming movement outlining the need to move beyond formal ritualism and abstract purity to live out Buddhism "with the body" or through one's whole life. It was convinced of the primacy of the Lotus Sutra scriptures and the belief that if a nation returned to the Lotus Sutra, casting out or abandoning heretical forms of Buddhism, then the nation would enjoy peace and justice in the present world. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, in Kenji's time, this lead Nichiren Buddhism into a kind of Japanese ultranationalism mirroring the development of the European nation-states and lead-in to World War One. Under different interpretations, Nichiren also provided a socialist, pacifist, humanist counter-movement that was less popular and often actively persecuted, also mirroring the Transcendentalists of the 19th century United States.    

Kenji's work is also lent a mystique through his early death, and happens in many cases. But unlike a James Dean or Marilyn Monroe, Miyazawa died sacrificially living out his ideals in service to others. Japan's increasingly militarized government closed the Rasu Farmer's Association down in 1928, after which Kenji contracted an ongoing case of pneumonia. He essentially worked himself to death selling crushed limestone to farmers, in the hope that this meager job could in some way improve their crops and lives. He was initially buried at his family's plot in a Pure Land Buddhist temple, but when the family converted to Nichiren Buddhism in 1951, he was reinterred at the Nichiren temple that he himself had made the case for building. Kenji's greatest fame came after his death, also like many great artists, when his friends posthumously published his many stories and poems, including Night on the Galactic Railroad. 

Despite his humble origins and early death, Kenji Miyazawa's expansive mind lives on as one of Japan's national treasures and an enduring legacy of beauty, curiousity, and romance for the entire world.