Ikuhara Loves Night on the Galactic Railroad

Possible Spoilers for: Night on the Galactic Railroad, Sailor Moon, Revolutionary Girl Utena, Penguindrum and Yurikuma Arashi.
Tread carefully.

Anime director, Kunihiko Ikuhara is infamous among fans for use of elaborate visual metaphors and confusing symbolism. But some of Ikuhara’s favorite motifs can be easily traced back to the 1985 film Night on the Galactic Railroad.


Night on the Galactic Railroad is an anime film adaptation of a novella by Kenji Miyazawa published posthumous in 1934 and became one of Japan’s most beloved children’s books. The film version, directed by Gisaburo Sugii, liberally uses surreal and cryptic imagery to bring Kenji Miyazawa’s story to life.

Kenji Miyazawa himself is one of Japan’s most famous modern authors. He was a devote practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism and was speculated to hold many internationalist beliefs. These values are easily to noticed in his work.

Night on the Galactic Railroad emphasizes how things are not as they seem. Ikuhara doesn’t just take specific images from the film but also uses a similar stylistic tone. Ikuhara loves to misdirect his audience into thinking one thing and then revealing something totally different. This happens all the time throughout Night on the Galactic Railroad. If you like any of Ikuhara’s works and want to see where some of his inspiration came from then you’re going to want to check out this film. Discotek has released Night on the Galactic Railroad on both Bluray and DVD.

Ikuhara isn’t subtle in expressing his fondness for Night on the Galactic Railroad. In Penguindrum, he actually has characters on screen discussing some of Night on the Galactic Railroad’s symbolism.


Props to The Anime Network’s cultural note on this scene. It’s like even the translators are just scratching their heads going “Okay, look, this is an Ikuhara show and I’ve got no clue what’s going on. The universe is an apple? Sure, whatever you say kiddo.”

Here’s some of the imagery from Night on the Galactic Railroad to be on the lookout for next time you’re watching one of Ikuhara’s works.

Train Tracks

About two thirds of Night on the Galactic Railroad take place on a train as the title implies. Trains or railways quite literally represent journeys but a rail line heading into the stars or heavens might being trying to convey that characters have actually reached the end of the line.



Apples are a very common reference to the biblical story of Adam and Eve but Miyazawa’s and Ikuhara’s usage of the fruit manages to branch out quite a bit from Christian iconography. Rather than simple temptation apples will instead represent sacrifices made for the greater good. Apples are food and thus a life source but with life comes death and in turn death brings life, an apple’s consumption is necessary for this cycle to properly flow. Ikuhara’s Penguindrum is lousy with apples but they also show up a few time is Revolutionary Girl Utena.



In the original book Night on the Galactic Railroad characters are understood to be human but in the film the cast is replaced with talking cats. Ikuhara personifies animals very frequently in his works. Perhaps this was inspired by the creative liberties taken with the film version of Night on the Galactic Railroad. Talking cats specifically though are the focus of an episode of Sailor Moon that Ikuhara directed called “Loved and Chased: Luna’s Worst Day Ever”. In this episode we can see how Ikuhara expressed human emotion through animals early in his directorial career.



Ikuhara loves stairs! There’s a scene in Night on the Galactic Railroad where our protagonists travel down an immense flight of stairs and at the bottom they find a riverbank. (It’s actually one of my favorite scenes so I want to avoid spoiling it.) This scene from the film associates stairs with time, specifically subjective time.

It’s unclear how much or how little time is passing when Ikuhara’s characters are running up and down stairs. This is emphasized with the usage of repetitive footage, where a character experiencing an identical scenario over and over in an almost hypnotic fashion and yet we don’t actually know how long it takes Utena to climb all those steps up to the dueling arena or how long it takes for Kureha to stylishly fall down a flight of magic mind stairs.


Self Sacrifice

There are two major instances of self sacrifice in Night on the Galactic Railroad. The first is The Scorpion Fire story. The condensed version is that a scorpion runs from a predator and ends up falling into a well where he can’t escape, his dying wish is to have his body burned so that his life won’t go to waste and he can become a beacon that provides light to others.


Themes of self sacrifice are in all of Ikuhara’s works, including the parts of Sailor Moon he worked on. But in Penguindrum characters are sometimes referred to as scorpions making the connection to the scorpion story from Night on the Galactic Railroad even more apparent.

As for the second instance, let’s just say that if you watch Night on the Galactic Railroad and the Utena movie you’ll notice at least one similarity when it comes to the actions taken by red headed characters.

Red and Blue

Speaking of hair colors, the two main characters in Night on the Galactic Railroad are Giovanni and Campanella. Giovanni is a blue cat that’s demure, hardworking and a little naive. Campanella is a red cat that’s mature, distant and dedicated to his ideals. The characters of Shouma and Kanba from Penguindrum reflect Giovanni and Campanella in both color scheme and personalities.



There’s no way I caught all the influences Night on the Galactic Railroad had on Ikuhara, but these are the ones that stood out immediately after I rewatched the film and wanted to share these possible leads on what the heck Ikuhara is trying to say in his anime.



Related Posts:

Utena is NOT a Magical Girl

Related sources:

AnimeIntrospection’s post about parallels between Penguindrum and Night on the Galactic Railroad.

Rose’s Turn’s post about Loved and Chased: Luna’s Worst Day Ever

[This post was originally posted: Jul, 27th 2016 on the Otaple 1/2 Tumblr]

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