Gauche and the Galactic Railroad
It's a bit of good timing that I showed the trailer for Night on the Galactic Railroad recently. Ben Ettinger's newest essay at AniPages discusses the many anime adaptations of Japanese poet Kenji Miyazawa. I have a special fondness for Isao Takahata's 1982 film Gauche the Cellist, for its, ahem, "pastoral" depiction of small town rural life. Its world shares a quiet mysticism, where the crickets play music to the trees and the stars, and the sounds of Beethoven echo in all living things. In this world, I would almost expect the animals to stand on their hind legs, speak fluently, and share their love of music.
To me, Gauche the Cellist shares that same sense of peaceful mysticism, that playful imagination, of My Neighbor Totoro. It probably helps to be a music lover, and I can't think of any film that honors the transcendent power of great music quite like this. This is a world I wish to inhabit, a peaceful dream that also inhabits the waking life, where the imagination is the world.
Takahata made his mark as the psychological filmmaker. He pulled animation into the realm of the inner mind, and created a new expression in art. The expressionism of Horus, of Heidi and Marco and Anne is the expressionism of Van Gogh, of Rauoult, then fused with the humanity of Jean Renoir and Yasujiro Ozu.
My favorite moments in Gauche the Cellist are those scenes where Beethoven's music overtakes the imagination, and world is carried away. There's the early performance by the orchestra in a torrential storm that evokes Walt Disney's The Band Concert; there's the sight of a small room becoming the forest; there's the image of the young mouse, curled inside the cello, as nature becomes an audience for the music.
There is that image of the two mice holding the dandelions, floating in the breeze. That shot was later quoted at the end of My Neighbors the Yamadas, and it also points back to the opening sequence from The Story of Perrine (World Masterpiece Theater, 1978). But I am also reminded of that Miyazaki's wonderful scene where Totoro and the girls ride with the winds on a giant spinning top. This is why Totoro and Gauche feel like cousins to me; they both communicate the same message, but told very differently, just as Miyazaki and Takahata are very different.
Night on the Galactic Railroad, Gisaburo Suugi's 1986 movie, is different in many ways, but I believe it does share Takahata's reverence for the mystery. It's a meditative film, very symbolic, very surreal, but not the psychedelic surrealism of Dali or Yellow Submarine. "Dream logic" is a phrase that gets banded about too easily; I think we use those words when what we really feel is confusion. The Fellini surrealism of Hayao Miyazaki's past decade is a good example. If we feel confused or stuck, we can just chalk it up to "dream logic" and move along, and sometimes this works while other times it doesn't.
I think Night on the Galactic Railroad is driven by dream logic; it plays out like one long lucid dream, and the images hold quietly just long enough for us to ponder their meaning. Perhaps the images in this movie mirror my own dreams: the long, dark corridors, the empty streets and lonely rooms, the distant, disembodies voices. Where is the mother's voice coming from? Perhaps she is in the next room, as the child eats his meal alone in the kitchen. Perhaps this voice is a distant memory. Perhaps this voice is omnipresent, like a voice on the radio. This is how I often hear voices in my dreams.
Movies have an inherent dreamlike quality to them, with their abstract images, changing points of view, with its edits and cuts. Is this a chicken-and-egg thing? Do our brains mirror the patterns of movies when we dream, or is it the other way around? Difficult to say, but it is striking that movies arose at the same time as the explosive abstraction in art. There was a sudden push to explore the realm of the unconscious, to dive into the symbolic realm of the soul, and spill out into the ordered, waking world, where everything is neat and ordered and given proper names. There is an exhileration to these new art forms, but there is also a terror which lies under the surface, and you can feel unsettled without quite understanding why.
Great examples range from Stravinsky's The Right of Spring, to Picasso's Cubism, to the errie quality of silent movies like The Cabinet of Dr. Calibari, or Nosferatu, or Metropolis, or The Passion of Joan of Arc. The silent movies were more primal, more intuitive, more iconic. They had to be, by virtue of the technology. Only when sound was introduced and mastered have these surreal images receeded. We have literally talked the shadows away.
These are the images from Night on the Galactic Railroad that stay with me the longest - the long, winding, empty city streets; the mass of people (well, cats) marching in the festival of lights; the dark stable where the child comes to get some milk; the cat who catches birds and stuffs them into his bag; an abandoned city, that felt like it was buried miles underground, unseen by anyone; the lights and the street signs, floating in night sky; the hypnotic hum and clack of the printing press.
This feels like a lonely movie to me. Perhaps this is because of all the empty spaces, the dark, static images. Perhaps I'm projecting a bit of myself into the story, from the memories of my own dreams. Perhaps "lonely" isn't the right word at all; meditative, reflective? "Spiritual" is another word that gets banded about, but here I think it works. This story is a journey into the mind, into the collective unconscious, perhaps even into the realm beyond the grave.
Kenji Miyazawa wrote Night on the Galactic Railroad in order to mourn the death of his sister. It was never completed in his short lifetime. In his own way, Gisaburo Suugi captured that spirit in his film, that yearning, that curiosity, that haunting echo of a lost loved one. There's really no way to describe what that is like until it happens to you, and you bury your friends and loved ones. Their spirits haunt your mind like a phantom limb that never heals.