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Based on Kenji Miyazawa's 1927 novel, this dark but gentle fantasy of life and death is a demanding, rewarding film with some dazzling animation and a script by avant-garde playwright Betsu-yaku. Giovanni is a lonely child in unhappy circumstances. Late one night, he boards a strange steam train in a meadow on the outskirts of town. He has no plans or expectations; he's simply along for the ride, and finding his classmate and only friend, Campanella, on board is an unexpected bonus. The fantastic voyage takes them along the Milky Way, through landscapes symbolic of death and rebirth, based on Miyazawa's beliefs as a Nichiren Buddhist and student of Christianity and his background as a naturalist. Only when the train comes full circle and deposits him back at home does Giovanni understand that Campanella's journey had a different destination-in the real world he is dead by his own hand.
Director Sugii isn't afraid to take things slowly or to take liberties with a text when necessary (see Tale of Genji). Here he turns all Miyazawa's characters into cats, creating a distancing effect that blurs the edges of the film's tragedy and helps us to accept its overriding sense of wonder and optimism. The imagery of the novel, using a railroad as a metaphor for life's journey, is interpreted with superb attention to detail. The steam train and the stations are as rich and credible as any real-world setting, and the poetic beauty of the imagery combines with this richness to give the long journey a powerful emotional weight. Yellow Magic Orchestra-cofounder Hosono's music perfectly fits this visually stunning film, with its imagery of almost hallucinogenic beauty and power, though even he takes a back seat for Handel's Hallelujah chorus. Compare to Galaxy Express 999, with a similar interstellar train, also pastiched in Tsui Hark's Hong Kong cartoon, A Chinese Ghost Story (1999). The story was also directed by Kazuki Omori as the live-action film Night Train to the Stars (1996).