Milky Way Railroad (Ginga Tetsudo no Yoru) is generally considered by critics and readers alike to be Kenji Miyazawa’s masterpiece of children’s literature. Nevertheless, despite its general popularity, numerous printings, and seemingly accessible view of the afterlife, it remains one of Miyazawa’s most difficult works to understand.
Written over a ten-year period from the early 1920s until the author’s premature death in the early ‘30s, Milky Way Railroad’s posthumous publication underwent enormous editorial revision that resulted in at least three other versions, with its “final form” hitting bookstores over forty years later in the mid-1970s.
Different generations of Japanese have thus read different renditions of the story over the last 80+ years. Similarly, English-language readers have been exposed to different versions of the story as well as different translations, including our edition of Joseph Sigrist and D.M. Stroud's widely acclaimed translation.
Some might describe Milky Way Railroad as Japan's answer to A Wrinkle in Time or The Little Prince. And while these parallels may be reductive, Miyazawa’s story is the product of the same kind of imagination: an attempt to turn transcendent struggles into a story that either a child of six or an adult of sixty can relate to.
The best way to talk about Milky Way Railroad might not be through analogies to Western works, but by way of its creator. A Renaissance man primarily remembered as a masterful poet and author of children's tales, Miyazawa was rescued from obscurity and rewarded not just with accolades but cultural ubiquity.
The abstract details and philosophical themes of Milky Way Railroad stem most strongly, it seems, from Miyazawa's devotion to the science of astronomy and the spirituality of Buddhism. From the layman's outside perspective, the two disciplines have no apparent overlap, but a closer look reveals that they have a great deal in common. The former looks outwards, the latter inwards, but in both we confront the infinite vastness of the universe and the ultimate insignificance of human existences. Astronomy teaches us how to understand and systematically map our physical place in the cosmos. Buddhism teaches us how to spiritually and psychologically cope with these daunting realities.
Milky Way Railroad opens on the first of those two notes, as our young protagonist Giovanni and his friend Campanella sit in class listening to their teacher’s lecture on the composition of the Milky Way. The idea that the glowing river of light they witness in the night sky is made of stars is haunting to Giovanni, but the reality of his surroundings demands far more of his attention. His mother is ill. He must work after school at the printing company in town, for what amounts to pocket change, while enduring the not-very-concealed sneers of his older coworkers. His classmates tease him about his father, a fisherman who's been arrested for poaching seals. The festival being held that evening in town holds little appeal for him no thanks to his duties. Even errands as simple as running out for milk are fraught with an uneasy gloom.
Sprawled out on his back in the grass outside of town, Giovanni's stargazing is interrupted by the arrival of a phantasmal train from the stars. Upon boarding it, Giovanni finds a familiar fellow passenger: Campanella. Together, they ride the train through a slew of constellations, with colorful figures to be found at each stop: an old man who captures birds and turns them into flattened confections; an archaeologist digging out a massive skeleton made of crystal; and a slew of children seeking refuge after their “ship hit an iceberg and sank” (the Titanic!). It’s around this point in the story that the whole meaning of the cosmic trek becomes clear: This is the railroad to the afterlife.
To avoid giving away any major spoilers, I’ll stop right there.
Creative works like Milky Way Railroad tend to produce one of two reactions in people. One is bemusement, where people are willing to admit there's something to all this, but are hard-pressed to put it into words and eventually fall back into the dismal "I didn't get it" camp to describe their reaction. The other type of reaction is one of empathy, where the viewer may not "get" it, but also knows on a gut level that they don't necessarily have to "get" anything.
The first is intellectual, the second emotional; and I think those who evince the second attitude will glean much more from Miyazawa’s prose. Sometimes the best way to get something to stick with an audience, young or old, is to bypass their thoughts and go straight for emotions they didn't know they could feel.
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