Initially daily but now sporadic blog about anime and world animation with a specific focus on the artists behind the work. Written by Ben Ettinger.
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Sunday, January 2, 2004

07:26:29 pm , 3633 words, 5188 views     Categories: Animation, Translation, Interview

Gisaburo Sugii vs. Hiroshi Masumura

Below is a conversation between Gisaburo Sugii and Hiroshi Masumura about the 1985 movie Night on the Galactic Railroad. Masumura is a manga artist who has created a large body of work set in a fantasy land called "Atagoul" (the title of a short CG pilot by Mamoru Hosoda), where the inhabitants are primarily anthropomorphic cats. Around 1983 Masumura began adapting several of poet Kenji Miyazawa's short children's stories in manga form, transposing the characters into the anthropormphic cats that are his forté. The stories he adapted include Matasaburo the Wind Imp, The Cat's Office, Snow Crossing, The Biography of Budori Gusko and Night on the Galactic Railroad, a vast undertaking that took him several years, indicating just how important Kenji's oeuvre must have been to Masumura, which is also made clear in the discussion below. For Night, Kenji's magnum opus, he went so far as to draw two different versions of the story - one at the beginning of his trek across Kenji's Iihatov, of the last extant version of Kenji's manuscript for Night, and one at the end of his journey, of the earliest extant version of the manuscript.

It was based on Masumura's idea of transposing the characters into anthropomorphic cats that the same was done for the characters in the movie version that was in planning at the time at anime studio Group Tac, to be directed by studio co-founder Gisaburo Sugii, whose career had run the gamut from the avant-garde adult masterpiece Belladonna in 1972 to the musical fantasy Jack in the Beanstalk in 1974 and the anthology-format TV series Tales from Old Japan over the years that followed. Night on the Galactic Railroad was to become one of his most significant achievements, an unclassifiable film whose every element combines perfectly to create a transcendent experience like no other animated film. YMO co-founder Haruomi Hosono provides music of incredible emotive power, while the voice actors breath every syllable with a degree of sensitivity and clarity that brings out the poetic power of Kenji's language to the greatest possible extent, and every background recreates the untranslatable poetry of Kenji's original in a compellingly stylized and unrealistic fashion that puts the spotlight on all the right details. Further, in a move that is rather exceptional for an anime film, seminal 60s avant-garde theater playwright Minoru Betsuyaku was brought onboard to adapt the story to the screen. A dream team in every sense of the word. It's one of the greatest anime films of all time, based on one of the greatest Japanese books of all time.

How did Gisaburo approach the making of this film? There remains much to be said, but this conversation sheds some light on this question. Little has been said about this film elsewhere, so I wanted to present it here. There are a few items that differed from my own intuitive understanding of the film from years of viewings, so it's instructive. For example, I took the humans to have been inserted simply as a way of mirroring the inverse distanciation effect Kenji seemed to have intended by naming the main characters with unfamiliar Italianate names, only to name the victims of the sinking of the Titanic with familiar Japanese names. This isn't mentioned by Gisaburo, so that may not have been the case at all.

This conversion was translated from the mook released by Asahi Sonorama in August 1985, two months after the film hit the theaters.


Gisaburo Sugii: Did you intend to use cats from the start when you were thinking of adapting Night on the Galactic Railroad?

Hiroshi Masumura: I wanted to do it with people at first, but I'm not very good at drawing people... (laughs) But I don't think I would have done it with people even if I could draw people. The second you set down a human face to this story, it changes the feeling of the story entirely, defining it around your own image, and I wanted to avoid that. I wouldn't have bothered to give it this much thought if the story didn't mean as much to me as it does.

GS: People have tried to animate Night on the Galactic Railroad before. It's a pretty common project. But it never works out. The projects always go belly-up midway. One of the reasons is that Kenji's descriptions of the landscape and colors are extremely specific, which surprisingly makes it more difficult to adapt. They try to reproduce those colors and details, and it never works. When Atsumi Tashiro (producer of Night) first talked to me about the idea eight years ago, I re-read the story, and the first thing I did was to try to put a face on Giovanni and Campanella, like you did. But I just couldn't come up with anything. If you try to force your own image onto those characters, it winds up changing what Kenji was trying to get across by this story through the characters. This time around I had a look at your manga when the project was in planning, and honestly, it was an incredible shock. I had never even dreamed of drawing the characters as animals. It was the obvious answer. It solved all the problems. I don't have a hard time visualizing the characters as cats now, thanks to your original, but I imagine it must have taken real courage to take that step.

HM: Deep down the reason I've set my manga in the land of Atagoul, where cats and people are on equal terms, is basically because of Kenji. The Acorn and the Wildcats is where I got the idea in the first place. So I don't think I'm doing Kenji any disrespect. One thing, though, is that there's a line in one of Kenji's poems where he says "I hate cats," so I was afraid people might be opposed to the idea because of that. (laughs)

GS: Kenji didn't draw any pictures for the original story; the pictures are the text. So, just the opposite, I think it would be nonsensical to try to adapt it literally and not take some freedoms with it. Your book is a perfectly valid creation. You've taken the mood of his story and transformed it into an extremely emphatic visual equivalent that brings out the mood of the original.

HM: The reason I drew a manga based on the story in the first place was because there was a lot I could identify with in the feelings of the characters. Also, Kenji's descriptions of the scenery are extremely vivid visually, so they come across as very realistic. His descriptions are both beautiful and opaque at the same time: "Dipping his finger in the invisible river of the sky." Then there are the various mysterious neologisms scattered throughout the text like tenkirin ("Heaven Wheel") and sankakuhyou ("Triangle Scope") and sekitanbukuro ("Coal sack"), which are so visually evocative and rich. It was a strangely pleasurable experience, coming up with concrete images of these objects and then putting them down on paper, only to be disappointed by my own lack in skill, and surprised at the incredible difference between the finished drawing and the object as I'd imagined it.

GS: My biggest problem in the film was the question of culture. The names are Italian-sounding - Giovanni, Campanella - but the feelings described seem pretty obviously Japanese. When you read these names it brings up this image of people in an imaginary European-like land somewhere, but my interpretation is that it's basically Kenji's feelings as a Japanese poet that we see in the characters and the landscape. So the question of culture is obviously a major issue for making a movie version. The landscape in your own manga version is your own personal vision of that world. I had trouble deciding whether to go with your own image of the world, or to put together a vision of Giovanni's life and environment more suited to a movie.

HM: I know what you mean. I didn't go into detail about things like how to draw the walls. You'd have to give them texture, add details to the interior scenes. And what color is their hair? Do they wear pants? There's a lot that isn't defined in my version.


GS: One of the things that occurred to me while making the film is that what probably motivated this story, besides the obvious motivation of Kenji wanting to convey to kids a certain message, was nothing so much as the simple fact that Kenji saw the milky way one night and was inspired to write a wonderful fantasy that would interweave the beauty of the milky way together with his view of humanity. If you don't bother to read any of the research that's been done on the book, and you just read through it in one sitting, I think what comes across first is just how clear and beautiful a story it is. I had to do a lot of research to make the film, but I think it would probably be more conducive to producing an honest reading of the story as Kenji intended it to forget all the research and just go with that feeling of clarity that comes across on that unprepared first reading.

HM: I tried to approach the story without any set preconceptions about what it meant when I drew my manga. Overall I think I have a fairly good picture of the original, but it's full of all these wonderful holes that you just can't fill in no matter what you do, which are part of the appeal to me personally.

GS: Things like the tenkirin and sankakuhyou.

HM: Luckily nobody seemed to have paid any attention to my sankakuhyou, because I drew it wrong and nobody said a thing. (laughs)

GS: For the movie we went with the theory of Tsuneo Maeda (animation director) that the sankakuhyou might have been just a triangular device planted in the ground to map mountains, which Kenji might have been acquainted with since he loved the mountains. Tenkirin is probably a neologism, but it's fairly obvious that's it's primarily a symbolic object. Kenji's reasons for using these incomprehensible objects is probably simply for the feeling of mystery they inspire in the reader. In the movie I've taken the liberty of interpreting the tenkirin as the milky way. My own view of these objects is that they're Kenji's way of saying to the reader: use your imagination, interpret however you want. His ability to fire the imagination is one of his greatest skills as a poet. I think it's being truer to Kenji's intentions if you don't dig too deeply into the parts that Kenji has deliberately blurred over for us.

HM: There's a poem called "Refractive Index" at the beginning of Spring and Chaos. It's full of all sorts of difficult terms. It's like Night, with all these semantic holes added to make it impossible to understand. But I think it's better to leave those blank spaces as they are rather than to try to force out some kind of labored understanding.

GS: In the movie we read the introduction to Spring and Chaos aloud over the final sequence where Giovanni is running home. It fits perfectly. It's amazing how unified Kenji's view of humanity, the universe and nature is throughout his work. That poem very clearly captures Kenji's overall philosophy. You might say Night is the story version of Spring and Chaos.

HM: I had to read Kenji's poems every day for a TV program earlier this year. When you read a poem enough times to be able to recite it from memory, it tends to pop into your head every once in a while. So for kicks sometimes I'd recite Spring and Chaos over and over and over. After a while it finally starts to sink in that the message is the same as Night. It sounds like something Kenji would do anyway - repeating something over and over like a sutra. So I think you did the right thing using the poem at the end of the film. People might leave the theater wondering what that crazy poem was, but unconsciously kind of getting how it relates to the film's message.


HM: I noticed you left out the religious conversation between the boy and Giovanni.

GS: I considered cutting out every reference to religion. My own interpretation of Night is that it was Kenji's attempt to construct his own personal cosmogony. Kenji had his own interpretation of Buddhism and Christianity that he wanted to convey, but gradually blurred over the explicit references as he worked on polishing the manuscript over the years. I thought it was best to not deal with Kenji's blurring tendency, which is why I mostly eliminated the entire "true God" conversation scene.

HM: Instead Giovanni just goes right to the heart of the matter with one line.

GS: That line was important because it's Kenji himself posing the big question to himself.

HM: The original story doesn't talk about Giovanni as having this overwhelming evangelical urge or anything. He doesn't try to force himself on anybody. None of his lines in the original story come across as evangelical.

GS: I might be reading too much into the story, but the way I read it, here's Kenji, who already had a fair number of years of experience looking for the path to true happiness, saying to people younger than him with less of that experience, "Look, I'll leave you a hint, but I can't do any more than that. You'll have to figure out the path to happiness on your own." Giovanni would therefore in effect be Kenji saying, "It's up to you to look for the path to true happiness." Which is why I cut out the scene where Giovanni attains enlightenment after the Scorpion Fire scene. Instead I have him say "I'll become like that scorpion" at the end of the film when he learns that Campanella is dead. Giovanni learns the truth about life through Campanella's sacrifice of himself to save Zanelli. My perception of Kenji's religious stance is less that of a firmly established Christian god than an abstract deity standing for the natural world, represented by the void of the coal sack. In his later years I get the distinct impression of Kenji's religious evolution towards a view of god as the universe itself, this dark, unfathomable coal sack of nothingness that's the ultimate destination of everything and everyone.

HM: But don't forget that Kenji asked in his last will to "distribute sutras" on his death. I agree that religion is less prominent in his later work, but when you read his later work you nonetheless really get the impression that it was written by a person who's no longer afraid of death. You get the sense of someone with truly ironclad spiritual readiness.


HM: What was the purpose of adding the blind wireless operator? He wasn't in the original story.

GS: He was screenwriter Minoru Betsuyaku's idea: a blind wireless operator who hears all of the misery in the world. My idea of the train was that it probably has all sorts of characters like this. Minoru must have been on that train at some time in his life to come up with a character like that. (laughs) Night encompasses all sorts of possibilites. That's its breadth.

HM: Is this approach the result of your years working in animation?

GS: You could say that. I worked on Tales of Old Japan (Nihon Mukashibanashi) for many years before this. Folk tales are a perfect example of an idea with the breadth to encompass different interpretations, just like Night. Ordinary stories created by someone are finely honed in a way that's extremely precise to the author's intent, so there's not a lot of room for interpretive freedom, whereas folk tales are so basic and loose that every person can bring their own interpretation to each story. Night is like that in that it invites each person to come up with their own interpretation. You can read it as a pleasant folk tale-like story, or you can read it as a philosophical text with religious overtones. You can also read it a scientist's literary homage to astronomy. What's amazing is that this breadth didn't come from a simple folk tale but from a poet with a very unique and delicately fine-tuned poetic sensibility. So I think adding a blind wireless operator shouldn't have any adverse effect on the mood of the story.

HM: Did you not consider making him a character like Dr. Vulcanilo? (a character in the early version of the original story)

GS: For this movie I decided that I didn't want any character representing god like Dr. Vulcanilo to be there telling people, "Do this and that, and you'll find true happiness." I wanted to make a movie that would have the same effect as reading one of Kenji's poems does - to make you feel what Kenji is trying to say, rather than understand it, rather than trying to explain it in words. So for example Giovanni's feelings of loneliness are conveyed through the landscape, instead being explained through drama. I didn't want to use words to express what it was that Giovanni learned from Campanella's death. You follow him along on his journey through the stars, and feel the complexity of his emotions when he woke up and learned that his companion on the journey, Campanella, was dead. I felt that the best way to convey that complexity was through silence, by not verbalizing it.


HM: Why did you make all the people on the Titanic humans?

GS: I wanted to make the point that it doesn't matter whether they were humans or animals.

HM: But it clashes with the rest of the film. Won't it confuse people and get them to wondering what it's supposed to mean? Here everyone they've seen is a cat, and suddenly they're presented with a boatload of people. I think it's the most jarring moment in the film.

GS: My feeling is that people won't be that bothered by it. Having the two side by side goes to the root of Kenji's world view: cats, people, insects and rocks alike - everything is one despite any outward differences. I wanted to emphasize that position of his in the film. Also important were the abstract images like the sankakuhyou that flies past the window. If you asked me to draw my image of Night in one drawing, I'd have the pampas grass in the foreground releasing crystal spores into the air with bizarre geometrical objects floating around behind them and a photograph of mars in the background - very much a collage of disparate elements. I wanted to bring out that heterogeneity in the film somehow. The film is put together in such a way that you can throw in various elements and it would still hold together. I guess it's a habit of mine to make films like that. I've got an aversion to making films that are nice and tidy. (laughs)


HM: I can personally relate to Giovanni's feelings. What are you trying to say to Giovanni?

GS: What I'm saying to Giovanni through this film is this: If you want to find true happiness, go back to the city.

HM: What do you think happens to Giovanni after this?

GS: I don't know whether Giovanni was crying or burning with hope as he was running home at the end; only that his heart was so full of emotions that he broke out running. That's why I said that "Everything starts here" at the end. Back in the city he'll go on living life one day at a time with the memory of a dear friend called Campanella in his heart, and one day I think he'll find something.

HM: Kenji's sister Toshi died before he started writing the story. I think it's acknowledged as one of his motives for writing it. It was his way of asking the question: where do we go when we die? If Giovanni is Kenji, then Campanella is Toshi. He had to find a way of getting over Toshi's death to be able to go on living. So he goes on a journey through the heavens with his sister, meeting all sorts of people along the way. But he can't fool himself into saying Toshi has gone to heaven and now she's happy. So he puts all his scientific knowledge to the task of looking for the heaven that he's always believed in. I think this process of searching overshadows all of Kenji's late work. But if he really loved his sister, he'd let her go. The way I see it, that's what Dr. Vulcanilo and Giovanni's ticket is about. The answer he found was that Giovanni (Kenji), left behind by Campanella (Toshi), has to go on living in the city to make up for the life s/he wasn't able to live. Which is the same as your ending.

GS: The nature of the medium requires some kind of feeling of identification with the main character, something universal that people can grasp, so I had to melt down the complex themes of the original to focus on Giovanni. You can read the original in a variety of ways. You can take a personal line and read it as a requiem for Kenji's sister. But insofar as Kenji broaches issues that reach far beyond the personal, it would be a contradiction to treat the story purely as a personal allegory. That's why this movie version does not take that kind of personal line, to remain truer to the spirit of Kenji's story.



tim_drage [Member]

Your blog never ceases to amaze me; a lengthy interview about ‘Night on the Galactic Railroad’! Superb.

01/03/05 @ 05:48
Owen Carson
Owen Carson [Visitor]

Here is a link to watch the “Atagoul” short that was mentioned online.


It’s by the same studio that made the 2004 Appleseed, don’t let that dissuade you though.
A good use of 4 minutes or so, with nice integration of live action backgrounds.

I would’ve posted this earlier but the site for Atagoul was down for several days…hopefully it will stay up this time.

01/06/05 @ 12:04
Jari Lehtinen
Jari Lehtinen [Visitor]

Well, mr. Ettinger, you simply never cease to amaze me! Here we have almost everything that is needed to know about one of the greatest classics of all time.

01/07/05 @ 10:16
Path [Visitor]

I also thank you for the interview. It’s a very deep movie with many many layers I am only just deciphering.

01/07/05 @ 21:53
lamia [Visitor]

I’m rather surprised because the way I interpreted the movie, all the religious undertones just collapsed at the end, when Giovanni gets to see the ‘true paradise’, which is one big black hole.

01/09/05 @ 14:49
Ben [Visitor]

The way I interpreted it, all the religious references in the movie sort of take on the significance of all the religious concepts man has managed to invent, with the MU or void of nothingness of the black hole being the ultimate truth that encompasses all these ideas. You have various people who get off at the various stations they’ve chosen for themselves. Kenji had studied all those religions, and the conclusion he came to was what they talk about in the interview, this concept of the universe itself as the ultimate deity; which is why the protagonists go all the way to the end of the line.

01/09/05 @ 15:28
Brittany [Visitor]

It was amazing a review and how it was done neatly portaid!!!

06/28/05 @ 22:53
unico [Visitor]

Why does it seem like Gisaburo Sugii, didn’t get Kenji or the story at all?

12/04/09 @ 09:11
Ben [Member]  

Why you say that?

12/08/09 @ 12:27
pete [Member]

The Biography of Guskou Budori will be remade as a movie, with the Galactic Railroad staff Sugii, Eguchi and Nasumura taking part. It features also the same anthropomorphic cat design.

Now I do not know if the chemistry will work out like 30 years ago but quality wise it will surely stand out.

05/29/12 @ 08:48
Edward [Visitor]

There’s a great post here about Gisaburo Sugii :)

05/19/13 @ 13:58
Edward [Visitor]

There’s a great post here about Gisaburo Sugii :)

05/19/13 @ 13:59