I always have a hard time recommending Night on the Galactic Railroad because it's not only an obscure title in terms of availability, but also in premise. For a children's story to have so many symbolic characteristics, and actually highlight themes such as growing up as a teenager and death is a feat in and of itself.
However, most of the anime audience might find this perturbingly slow paced and dull...sad, because it really is a gem if you can understand the story it's trying to tell.
In short, the movie tells of a young cat named Giovanni, poor and growing up in a struggling family with a sick mother; he seems like an outcast not only in the bane of society but also in school as shown by one particular scene at the beginning of the movie. The story ultimately comes into Giovanni and his friend Campanella, who take a trip on a night train that shows them sides of life and experiences they've never had before. It also carries a heavier symbolism alongside the train, as it's reflecting upon lives and somehow leading into the place/existence beyond death.
Many who watch this film the first time through may not get the themes or the heaviness the film comes to portray until the end when some revelations about both Campanella and Giovanni come to pass. It's very duly paced, I kid you not, and certainly not a film that many common anime watchers may come to appreciate unless they know the story before hand. I actually really enjoyed this, though I saw the film many years ago when I first started watching anime movies.
Despite being very philosophical in premise, dark, moody, and not readily adherent to most audiences who like something more to happen in anime series, I gave it more considerable weight than what most would give it because I could understand it overall, and I liked what it had to offer.
Night on the Galactic Railroad shows its age prominently with the animation, but surprisingly it's not necessarily bad for the year it was made (1985) nor is it ill...considering its animation adaptation from the original works. The dark settings of the film do well to compilment the atmosphere, not only in the night settings, but also in a rather dark premise when the heavier ironies of the story come to pass. For the most part, the animation stays consistent, and the coloring and design of the characters make it appropriate to display as a children's story, but quite grim. Giovanni, for some reason, reminds me of a design Miyazaki took with Totoro (perhaps the eyes), but it may have been simply reflective of the times and the respective characters, whom are cats.
The music in this movie was, from what I could recall of it, very placid and fitting to each scene, and there's one piano melody that I remember from the film that still sticks in my mind to date. The scenes are often quiet and focus on the action of the scene taking place, such as the classroom setting. When it's most minimalistic, it works well and really gives weight to what this film really presents. Most anime viewers who watch this looking for action or upbeat J-pop music will not find it here. It's really a carefully plotted, thought driven movie, almost surreal.
Voice acting in the Japanese version of this film is quite well done, and I liked that version the most. Even the English version wasn't bad at all, but surprised me with Crispin Freeman (Eureka Seven, Slayers) as Capanella, because I didn't think he'd fit the role with his typical casting spots, but he actually did a decent job handling the character.
The connectivity of the characters would really depend on how much you understand the movie and are not perturbed by the pacing, as it's very easy to lose footing and not find the emotion behind this film. Since it deals with themes such as death and coming of age, Giovanni sits right at the heart of the story with the realizations he has to face. He's a character that's easy to follow, but may not always be readily noted in his overall emotions. He's quite downcast pending the weight of his family problems and other factors, but when traveling with Campanella and watching the scenes on the train, you note his character a bit more and what he has to come to terms with.
The secondary characters are given due time, but as mentioned, probably aren't given the true weight of their roles because of the pacing and overall sequencing of the film.
I really wish I could rank Night on the Galactic Railroad much stronger than i's current score, because I did take quite a bit from it as both a children's story and as a more mature, darker one. Unfortunately, I think the presentation doesn't age as well for many to be able to see the gem it really is. My enjoyment of it would probably rank, realistically, around an 8, but only on a personal ground. This is a film I'd hold my recommendation for because it's only for those who can tolerate and understand its message.
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