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11 January 2009

A Japanese classic tale

—by Eri Izawa

GINGA TETSUDOU NO YORU is well-known in Japan as a classic in children's literature, so famous that almost every Japanese adult will have at least heard of it. To the newcomer coming from the anime/manga world, however, it may well be mistaken for the GINGA TETSUDOU 999 anime and manga series by Matsumoto Leiji (Nobita of the manga series DORAEMON once makes this very mistake!)

The resemblance is there: both "Milky Way Railroads" feature a mysterious train on a fantastic journey, a young passenger, and priceless lessons learned along the way.

Miyazawa's story, however, is the original. Deeply layered in beautiful text, symbolic meaning, and profound philosophy, it is little wonder it has become a literary classic. All this despite the fact Miyazawa's manuscript (published after his death) comes in many different versions, is incomplete, and is full of gaps!

The story's main character is a poor young schoolboy named Giovanni, whose father is possibly in jail (Giovanni doesn't think so), and whose mother is ill. Though picked on by other kids—with the exception of his friend Campanellula—Giovanni tries to maintain his pride, and is capable of escaping the humiliation by withdrawing into his imagination.

On the night of a festival, he winds up out alone in the dark fields, where he hears a voice calling, "Milky Way Station, Milky Way Station." Giovanni finds himself on board a train traveling beside a shimmering river that is the Milky Way. He travels with Campanellula.

As they ride, going from the Northern Cross to Cygnus and beyond (in fact, one critic observed, toward the center of the galaxy), they meet different people. Yet Giovanni is somehow special, for he alone of all the passengers carries some kind of pass that allows him to go anywhere at all, even beyond Heaven itself. When he realizes this, he begins to feel a new compassion and pity for all the others. He begins to feel that he can make any sacrifice for the happiness of other people. But what, he wonders, is true happiness?

The train's travels draw to a close and the characters dissapear. Even as Giovanni and Campanellula promise each other they would travel on together forever, Campanellula catches sight of a beautiful field in which he sees his mother; then he, too, is gone. Giovanni remains, alone again.

Giovanni awakens from this apparent dream and returns to town, where he discovers that Campanellula had drowned in a stream. He receives some comforting words from Campanellula's father about his own absent father, and then, his mind full of different thoughts, he goes home. But he goes home a changed person.

. . .

Many people have tried to unravel the layers and meanings in this story. Indeed, thanks to the number of different versions of the text, all the gaps, and the heavy symbolism, the task is difficult. Not all versions, for example, have the later versions' beginning and end, and an earlier version contains much more explicitly stated philosophy. Still, readers of GINGA TETSUDOU NO YORU agree that this work, possibly Miyazawa's best, is special for its beauty, meaning, and pure magic.

Based on the version published by: Kumon Publishing Co., Ltd. 1993

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