The contributions Miyazawa made to Japanese literature are felt deeply in the world of children’s stories.
Those uninitiated with the stories of author Kenji Miyazawa may already be familiar with his work’s many anime adaptations. As a children’s author, he was famed for his moral tales and short stories that incorporated Buddhist philosophy. As a poet, he was meditative and worldly, a deeply empathetic man who believed no one should be selfish. A significant body of Miyazawa’s work has been translated not only into different languages—but also different mediums.
Specifically, animated adaptations of his prolific yet short-lived creative output. Miyazawa died young, in a vow of Buddhist vegetarianism that ended in a fatal case of pneumonia. His mystical brand of storytelling has left a prominent impact on Japanese culture and specifically, children’s narratives in animation.
The Selfless Inferno
Those unfamiliar with Miyazawa’s background have a wide catalog of animated adaptations to explore. While I can’t give each of these the time they deserve, highlights include: Night on the Galactic Railroad, The Life of Budori Gusuko, and Gauche the Cellist. There is also Spring and Chaos, a biographical account of Miyazawa’s life as a teacher, writer, and his role in his family. Galactic Railroad is the most well-known of his works, with an animated adaptation directed by legend Gisaburo Sugii, who began in the industry working on the classic 1960s Astro Boy. Miyazawa’s story was published posthumously in 1934 with Sugii’s film debuting in 1985, starting a flame that would later ignite children’s anime with the essence of Miyazawa’s hallmark traits.
Galactic Railroad follows the story of young boy named Giovanni, depicted in the Sugii adaptation as an anthropomorphic cat, who is bullied by his peers. His dear friend Campanella is the only boy at school who doesn’t bother him. Giovanni finds himself atop a hill after school one day, and is visited by a train flying through the night sky. Both Campanella and Giovanni board the train, and encounter all sorts of strange people, constellations, and astrological anomalies. Despite Giovanni having no clear indication of the train’s final destination, his fellow passengers seem intent on arriving at a defined “true heaven,” or implied state of enlightenment.
Shortly before showing his ticket to Campanella, he asks Giovanni: “Where are you going?” to which Giovanni responds that he intends to travel “to the end of the universe.” Campanella and Giovanni are on this train to nowhere in particular—they embody the innocence of children who simply do things because they wish to do them. They have no final destination in mind; the adults aboard the train are single-minded, while Giovanni, Campanella, and the other children wish to linger and experience the beauty of the strange galaxy.
During their travels, they come across a burning Scorpio, a constellation that ignites a Buddhist epiphany in Giovanni as they question why the other passengers are aboard the train. Giovanni and Campanella meet a young girl named Kaoru. In this encounter, Giovanni recalls his earlier encounter with the inflamed Scorpio constellation back home, whom Kaoru, a fellow passenger, eagerly describes to him in the form of a small tale.
Kaoru’s story depicts the Scorpio painfully caught in the cycle of autophagy, the process of life consuming itself, who finally prays that the Buddha “use [it’s] body for the true happiness of everyone in the world,” and then afterwards transcends into the form of a fiery astral phenomena. In response to this, Giovani makes a vow to not be selfish, to give up his body if need be for the sake of others. The parallels between Giovanni’s vow and the Scorpio’s final prayer are explicit—one can’t help note the seemingly self-referential nature of the Scorpio’s narrative in relation to Giovanni’s willingness to sacrifice himself. This is a striking comment coming not only from a child—but that from Miyazawa himself, who himself would pass away from a bodily ailment in the name of Buddhism. As the train descends back to earth, Giovanni awakens on the hill to learn that Campanella has drowned and presumably died trying to save a school bully—therefore vowing to stay strong for the sake of others.
Giovanni’s astral lesson ultimately transcends to that of the mortal world, where death is permanent, and where his vow of selflessness can only be embodied in Campanella’s memory. It’s a humbling reminder of life’s fragility versus our spiritual constitution, and the limitations to which we can make death productive to living a better self-sustaining life. This lesson, too, will become the blueprint of other significant entries in the genre of children’s anime tackling such heavy subject matter.
The Middle Way
Literary adaptations are no stranger to television and film for children. Among the most popular include Nippon Animation’s 1997 The Dog of Flanders, which graced US Pokemon VHS across the nineties, alongside Miyazaki’s 1989 Kiki’s Delivery Service. However, I’d like to pinpoint on one specific title that seems to borrow from Miyazawa, or at least make distinct tribute to his contributions in children’s narrative. Miyazaki’s original Spirited Away needs no introduction, however it does draw noticeable parallels when compared to Galactic Railroad.
The careful viewer of may notice that the famous train in Spirited Away carries the name “chūdo” or “the middle way” as it’s known in Buddhist philosophy. This train, unlike the steam-engine in Galactic Railroad, is a modern model that wouldn’t be out if place in contemporary Japan. Film critic Andrew Osmond, argues that the trains seen in Galactic Railroad and Miyazaki’s film “both […] used the train to illustrate metaphysical mysteries” however that “in Miyazawa the image is integral to a moral and spiritual framework.” In Spirited Away, Chihiro must earn her ticket to board the train to escape the bathhouse, while Giovanni simply retrieves his from an otherworldly cosmic entity. One is received through labor, the other through perceived inherent “goodness” that Chihiro initially lacks.
The use of the train is utilitarian for Chihiro—it’s an adult’s form of transportation in modern society, much like her parent’s car in the beginning of the film, that she must accept despite her stubborn demeanor. Osmond’s comment that the Galactic Railroad suggests a heavier “moral and spiritual framework” with its train imagery isn’t misguided—it simply emphasizes that Giovanni is a different type of child protagonist altogether. Chihiro is a product of contemporary society, while Miyazawa drew influence from his rural Buddhist surroundings. It’s highly probable that this image of the child protagonist willingly taking a vow of selflessness was not entirely believable to Miyazaki, nor his sense of today’s kids.
In a previous article I’ve written about Buddhist philosophy in anime, and the influence of Tendai Buddhism on films such as Cat Soup. However, it’s important to emphasize that Miyazawa followed an esoteric sect of Japanese Buddhism called Nichiren Buddhism. The basic doctrine of Nichiren Buddhism claims that those that live by Buddhist ways of life can awaken an inner-Buddha, a bodhisattva. Giovanni would be a strong contender for this category, while Chihiro has to work much harder to mature enough to board the chūdo train that brings her to maturity. While Giovanni undergoes a Buddhist epiphany and awakens his potential for Buddha-nature, Chihiro fails to experience such a lesson aboard the train. However, despite this, she still learns to grow-up and return back to reality much like Giovanni.
The two characters must leave something behind (Haku and Campanella) in order to grow—these narrative beats are in no doubt thanks to the work of Miyazawa. Maturity and loss are interconnected in these two stories, linked together by voyages on trains that bridge the gap between childhood’s end and adolescence. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but both films tell it beautifully and with elegance that is still unrivaled today. The contributions Miyazawa made to Japanese literature are felt deeply in the world of children’s stories, particularly animation, and no doubt will continue being sources of inspiration for decades to come.