I chose to do the Kenji Miyazawa Theme Week because it aligned favorably with my plans to visit Iwate prefecture, so on my last day I spent a night in Hanamaki, Kenji Miyazawa’s home town.
It’s a small, serene place without the bustle of the big cities. And let me tell you, they’re proud of their Kenji. I arrived in the evening and was lucky enough to catch some fireworks on the horizon. Already at the station I found various posters promoting Miyazawa-related events.
Various places in Hanamaki are named after things in Miyazawa’s storiesy – the Ginga Mall, for example. You will find Miyazawa-themed decorations anywhere – lampposts, benches, sculptures, anything.
But the main attractions are obviously the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum and the Fairy Tale Village (Dōwa Mura).
There’s a special train, the SL Ginga, that’s going from Hanamaki to Kamaishi and back every weekend. Since Miyazawa studied Esperanto, all stations on the way have an Esperanto name attached to them – for example, Shin-Hanamaki becomes “Stellario” with the kanji 星座 (star sign). I would have loved to ride this event train with its interior modeled after real trains from around 100 years ago. Maybe next time!
The Memorial Museum is a beautiful place, located on top of a hill with a panoramic view on the surrounding idyll. A wooden staircase leads there and on every stair, one character of Miyazawa’s famous poem Ame ni mo Makezu is written, for a total for 367 stairs.
Entry is free and it feels like everything is crafted with love. There’s a restaurant, too, named Wild Cat House after the restaurant in The Restaurant of Many Orders. The souvenir shop has all kinds of goods and I took the chance to buy some books and a Night on the Galactic Railroad pin.
The main building had a lot of information on Miyazawa and original material on display. Apparently an English online guide exists, but inside most things are Japanese-only. Displayed were things such as letters Miyazawa wrote to one of his students or photos of the people close to him.
I then visited the Fairy Tale Village, a small Miyazawa-themed park with food stalls, a big stage, a big model train, ponds and various buildings – a great place for parents with children. The main building had one room with giant toy insects that was slightly eerie while another was dark and full of mirrors with lights imitating the night sky.
Here I also found messages from various notable Japanese personalities, including the late Ghibli director Isao Takahata, producer Toshio Suzuki, composer Joe Hisaishi, In This Corner of the World director Sunao Katabuchi, mangaka Fumiyo Kōno, composer kotringo. I was amazed how many of these names were familiar to me.
I took my time to walk around and enjoy every bit of it and if I had had more time, I would have gladly stayed longer. Most of the popular tourist spots in Japan can be pretty crowded and I find myself enjoying places like Hanamaki a lot more. Here I can relax and enjoy the atmosphere. If I lived here, I could see myself coming regularly, maybe reading book on a bench overlooking the fields and forests of Hanamaki. It’s definitely high on my list of places I want to re-visit when I’m coming to Japan again.
Riding through the prefecture on the local train lines also proved to be an excellent decision as the panoramic mountain and forest views were simply stunning at times, especially between Morioka and Miyako.
I’m glad I was able to visit Hanamaki. Tourism information in English is sparse and it’s not really a popular destination for foreigners, so I was not entirely sure what to expect. But both the town itself and the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum / Fairy Tale Village were lovely and quickly became one of my favorite places in Japan.
That concludes my posts on Kenji Miyazawa. It was my first theme week and I consider it a success. Having a theme and a goal definitely boosts my motivation to tackle thing I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. What definitely still needs to be improved is timely coverage – this took far longer than it should’ve taken and I also went into more detail than originally anticipated. But there will be more theme weeks and I’ll try my best to not procrastinate the writing part too much next time.
Kenji Miyazawa’s stories became very popular in post-war Japan, so naturally there have there have been animated adaptions. The earliest ones were puppet animations – The Restaurant of Many Orders (1958) and Gauche the Cellist (1963) – and the most recent adaption is Matasaburō of the Wind from the Anime Mirai 2016 (Young Animators Training Program).
But Miyazawa’s influence goes far beyond just adaptions of his work. His ideas had and continue to have a big impact on generations of artists. The most notable case may be Leiji Matsumoto’s works, particularly Galaxy Express 999 and The Galaxy Railways.
In this article, I will try to provide a non-exhaustive overview of these adaptions and influenced works.
Adaptions and Re-Adaptions
Take a short glimpse at the anime works that credit Kenji Miyazawa and you will notice: Many of them have been adapted two or even three times. Out of the huge catalogue of Miyazawa short stories, a few seem to me particularly popular. Gauche the Cellist, Night on the Galactic Railroad, Matasaburō of the Wind and The Life of Budori Guskō have all been adapted twice or three times even over the course of the decades.
Out of the ones I have seen, all had an interesting artistic directions. There are more straightforward works, like Takahata’s take on Gauche, but the majority of the adaptions have unusual – sometimes daring and experimental – visual styles that complement the eerier, weirder elements in Miyazawa’s stories. Unfortunately, some of the older works are hard to get your hands on nowadays – I’m not sure all of them were released physically in the first place.
Let’s take a short look at the works by the most prestigious directors.
Isao Takahata’s Cellist
Takahata’s 1982 adaption of Gauche the Cellist may seem fairly conventional. It adds a few details to the original story, but nothing major. However, this was an independently produced endeavor with great attention to detail that took 6 years to complete and was the beginning of an approach to anime production that Takahata would later use again in My Neighbors the Yamadas and The Tale of Princess Kaguya: To attain the highest level of artistic consistency, the 63-minute movie was solo-layouted and key animated by Yoshitsugu Saida.
Most of the movie is fairly realistic – the lavish backgrounds stand out in particular – but there are some very stylized scenes of comic relief that may surprise people who only know Takahata’s newer works. One scene also pays tribute to Tom & Jerry.
Also notable is the attention payed to the music. In addition to the pieces used in the original story, Takahata chose a few classical compositions for the movie. Saida took cello lessons in order to animate the movements as accurately as possible. The song Hoshimeguri no Uta written by Miyazawa himself is notably used in the opening credits.
While other adaptions of Miyazawa works may stand out as more artistically daring, this is definitely an excellent adaption of Gauche. I have to admit the original story never resonated much with me, but any admirer of animation as an art form should watch Takahata’s Gauche at least once.
Gisaburō Sugii’s Cats in Space
Gisaburō Sugii, one of the earliest directors in TV animation, took on the arguably most famous animated Kenji Miyazawa adaption, released in 1985: Night on the Galactic Railroad. In the beginning, Sugii had trouble adapting Miyazawa’s abstract work into something concrete, as Jonathan Clements describes, so he made an interesting choice: “It was the manga artist Hiroshi Masumura who came up with a solution – keeping the original abstraction in the anime by making the lead characters cats.”
The original work was already quite weird at times, but Sugii’s version takes it to a new level. The movie is dark, slow and sometimes outright creepy. It still keeps Miyazawa’s message intact, but it’s nothing I would show to children as casual entertainment. That being said, the very nature of this highly unique movie and its incredibly strange atmosphere make it quite compelling. Definitely recommended!
Funny anecdote: The movie was recently licensed in Germany by publisher Anime House, but the voice and music tracks were lost over the years, so in order to produce a dubbed version, Anime House had to recreate these tracks. They used the official soundtrack release to restore the music and the sound effects while the missing parts of music were recreated from scratch by the dubbing studio, based on the original sound. The process was documented here.
I’m personally more fond of Sugii’s take on The Life of BudoriGuskō 27 years later (the second time the story was adapted in animated form). The movie also portrays the main characters as cats and has much of the same eerie weirdness as Sugii’s Railroad, but I found it more tangible and the visuals more appealing. The story also shares some biographical elements with Spring and Chaos (see below). For more details on the production process, read Clements’ article linked above.
There’s another “adaption” of Night on the Galactic Railroad with the English subtitle Fantasy Railroad in the Stars by digital artist Kagaya – a 48-minute tribute to the story. It shows the train on its journey through the galaxy – and it’s quite beautiful, including the music – the kitsch factor is high, though. Kagaya also added narration of passages of the original story, but did not aim to retell the whole story, encouraging viewers to read the original instead.
Shōji Kawamori Peculiar Biography
Shōji Kawamori of Macross fame directed the 1996 movie Spring and Chaos (イーハトーブ幻想 Kenjiの春), produced by TV Iwate, the local television station of Miyazawa’s home prefecture. Kawamori also decided to portray the characters as cats, but this is not an adaption of a story, but a biographic take on Miyazawa’s life as a teacher, writer and farmer.
The one-hour movie portrays Miyazawa as a rather eccentric teacher and references some of his work, including Miyazawa’s Hoshimeguri no Uta song already used by Takahata. In addition to traditional cel animation, the movie has a couple of very interesting and experimental sequences that use beautiful, abstract crayon-styled animation to portray dreamlike sequences. These sequences are absolutely outstanding.
While people who don’t know anything about Miyazawa may be puzzled by this movie, I still think its message and atmosphere can be appreciated regardless of background knowledge. It is a competent retelling of Miyazawa’s grown-up life that covers topics such as his idealism, the death of his sister and his wish to become a farmer. Very peculiar indeed, but definitely worth a watch!
Kazuo Oga’s Solo Effort on Taneyamagahara at Ghibli
Ghibli Background Artist and Art Director Kazuo Oga adapted Miyazawa’s Night on Taneyamagahara at Studio Ghibli in 2006 – mostly all by himself. Oga is credited for direction, drawing all the key frames and “dramatization”. And it shows: This is not a typical animated movie, but rather a collection of stills with added narration. But these stills are beautiful! The story borrows the setting of Taneyamagahara, but the events are anime-original. I personally think it captures the appeal of Miyazawa’s story perfectly and absolutely does it justice. The narration is also quite excellent and pays a lot of attention to details – for example, the local Iwate dialect is used. Give it a try if you want to experience one of Miyazawa’s mysterious, yet oddly calming stories about nature.
It may not stand out as much as the other works mentioned here, but my personal favorite of all Miyazawa adaptions is the 2016 version of Matasaburō of the Wind – a 25-minute short movie made as part of a subsidized training project for young animators, called Anime Mirai (now: Anime Tamago). The character designs are cute, the colors very appealing and it captures the calming yet mysterious nature I love so much about Miyazawa’s works. You can really feel the wind while watching!
These are by far not all adaptions, but from the ones I have seen, I consider them the most interesting.
To conclude this article, I would like to name a few cases of other anime or manga works referencing or being influenced by Miyazawa’s works, first and foremost Night on the Galactic Railroad.
– As mentioned above, Leiji Matsumoto’s Galaxy Express 999 and The Galaxy Railways directly pay tribute to Night on the Galactic Railroad.
– In the 2013 post-war movie Giovanni’s Island (big recommendation), the protagonists are nicknamed after the protagonists in Night on the Galactic Railroad, and in a pivotal moment in the the second half, the galaxy train appears in a dreamlike sequence.
– Kunihiko Ikuhara’s Mawaru Penguindrum heavily references several elements of Night on the Galactic Railroad, including to Scorpion’s Fire.
– Both Bungaku Shōjo and Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora reference Night on the Galactic Railroad several times.
– Hayao Miyazaki mentioned in an interview that that he always imagined the cat in Judge Wildcat and the Acorns as bigger-than-human as a child – a reason why Totoro is so big.
– In Takahata’s Pom Poko, two of Miyazawa’s songs are used as background music (I already mentioned the Hoshimeguri no Uta – the other one is called Spring Joy and seems to originate from Matasaburō of the Wind, from what I read on a Japanese blog).
– Jonathan Clements mentions Keiichi Hara’s Colorful and Birthday Wonderland movies also received inspiration from Miyazawa’s works.
– The song Hoshimeguri no Uta composed by Miyazawa himself is not only used in adaptions of his works, but also in Wish Upon the Pleiades (Gainax, 2015), Planetarian: The Reverie of a Little Planet (David Production, 2016), Baja’s Studio (Kyōto Animation, 2018).
Kenji Miyazawa (1896-1933) was a Japanese writer and poet famous for his fairy tales – in a way, he could be called the Japanese Hans Christian Andersen or Lewis Carroll. But he was also a scholar, a teacher and someone deeply concerned with the life of local farmers – to the point where he left his job as a teacher behind and became a farmer himself.
My experience with Miyazawa before this theme week
read the English translation of Night on the Galactic Railroad
read Chūmon no Ōi Ryōriten (The Restaurant of Many Orders) and Donguri to Yamaneko (Judge Wildcat and the Acorns) in Japanese
watched the following anime films based on his work or life:
The Life of Gusko Budori (2013 version)
Matasaburō of the Wind (both versions)
The Restaurant of Many Orders (1994 version)
Night on Taneyamagahara
Gauche the Cellist (1982 version)
What I did during this theme week:
☑ Visit: Kenji Miyazawa’s hometown Hanamaki + museums
☑ Read/Listen: Taneyamagahara (種山ヶ原)
☑ Read/Listen: Gauche the Cellist (セロ弾きのゴーシュ)
☑ Read/Listen: Matasaburō of the Wind (風の又三郎)
☑ Read/Listen: The Acorn and the Mountain Cat (どんぐりと山猫)
☑ Read/Listen: The Twin Stars (双子の星)
☑ Watch: Spring and Chaos (1996)
☑ Rewatch: Gauche the Cellist (1982)
☑ Rewatch: The Night on Taneyamagahara (2006)
☑ Watch: Fantasy Railroad in the Stars (2007)
Life and Death and Galaxy Trains
Miyazawa’s most famous work is without doubt Night on the Galactic Railroad, a story about two boys, Giovanni and Campanella, who travel through the galaxy in a train before their inevitable parting. The story begins at Tanabata, the Star Festival in July. Giovanni boards a train that magically appears when he climbs a hill alone at night and meets his best friend, Campanella, there. What he does not know yet is that Campanella had fallen into a river that night, losing his live. The mysterious train takes them on a journey through the galaxy. The two boys witness all kinds of wondrous phenomenons, see beautiful places and meet bizarre people. They talk about their loved ones and the true meaning of happiness. But Giovanni is not dead, so he has to return to Earth in the end, while Campanella continues his journey into the next world.
This story reflects many of Miyazawa’s ideas, but one that occurs in a number of his stories and poems is the sorrow of parting. In 1922, at the age of 24, Miyazawa’s sister Toshi passed away. The two of them were very close and according to the anime adaption of Spring and Chaos, Miyazawa considered her one of the two people who truly understood him (the other one being his classmate Hosoka Kanai). Naturally, her death left a deep scar on his heart.
The Fields and Mountains of Iwate
A recurring setting in Miyazawa’s works is the beautiful nature of his home, the Iwate prefecture. Mountains, fields, rural villages and deep forests – when I took a train ride through the prefecture recently, I could really feel what inspired him a century ago. Miyazawa invented the name „Ihatov“ for the region which is thought to be an Esperanto rendering of the name “Iwate” with the meaning “ideal place” or “paradise”, though there are a number of different theories.
However, there’s also a strong element of mystery in many of his works. In both Matasaburō of the Wind and Taneyamagahara, supernatural events occur. But there’s no explicit magic in these works – it’s all described in a dreamlike fashion that makes you wonder if it was real or not. In Matasaburō of the Wind, a boy called Saburō from outside moves to a rural school and the other kids half-jokingly call him „Matasaburō of the Wind“, after a wind sprite known to the locals. The wind indeed picks up that day and other mysterious phenomenons happen, but when Saburō and his family leave the village, the children and the reader still wonder if he was really „Matasaburō of the Wind“ or just a normal boy.
The local Iwate dialect is also commonly used in his works and even more so in the anime adaptions.
Moral in Miyazawa’s Works
From what I’ve read, Good and Evil is not really a theme in Miyazawa’s works. But many of his stories do have some kind of morale, and some also condemn certain behaviors or character traits. This is most obviously in his famous The Restaurant of Many Orders. In this story, two men behave arrogantly and greedily, showing no respect for nature. Their greed and stupidity eventually leads to them being eaten by wild cats who carefully lured them into their trap.
This is one of the weirder, darker stories, and it has a bit of a Through the Looking-Glass vibe.Judge Wildcat and the Acorns, a story about a cat who settles an argument between a group of acorns in a lawsuit, is less dark, but comedic and nonsensical in a way that is also very reminiscent of Lewis Carroll.
Miyazawa the Idealist
In one of his poems (published posthumely), Be not Defeated by the Rain (雨ニモマケズ, Ame ni mo Makezu), Miyazawa describes what kind of person he aspires to be. This poem seems to represent many of his ideals. It goes like this:
In the biographical anime movie Spring and Chaos, Miyazawa’s father, a pawnbroker, claims his son is “too idealistic” after Miyazawa remarks he would lend poor people in need money. During his time at university, many of Miyazawa’s ideals were formed in conversations with his close friend Hosoka Kanai – who believed the natural (or ideal) state of a human being was being a peasant. One NHK World documentary even interprets this poem as describing Kanai.
Animals and Humor
Some of Miyazawa’s stories feature human characters, but a number of them include anthropomorphized animals or other things. Judge Wildcat and the Acorns was mentioned above already, The Cat Office (猫の事務所) also features cats. The Twin Stars tells the story of two stars on the sky and their interactions with personified star constellations, the Scorpion and the Big Crow. Judge Wildcat and the Acorns as well as The Restaurant of Many Orders also have a peculiar sense of humors that is sometimes straightforward, sometimes hard to make sense of – and sometimes surprisingly dark for tales aimed at children.
Kenji the Scholar
Miyazawa quit his job as a teacher to help the poor farmers in his hometown, becoming a farmer himself and trying to introduce innovative methods of fertilization. This way of living, however, took a toll on his health and he passed away at the young age of 37. Some of his works were self-published during his lifetime (though not very successful), but most of them only published posthumously.
Miyazawa was an avid student of astronomy, geology, Buddhism, agricultural science, and the Esperanto language. He worked as a teacher, placing value on hands-on experiences and taking his students on walks and expeditions frequently. He also introduced Western classical music and to the local farmers and engaged in a number of social and cultural activities, including readings and plays.
Kenji Miyazawa in English
Miyazawa never rose to fame in the English-speaking world like Haruki Murakami or Natsume Sōseki, but I was pleasantly surprised to see that many of his works were, in fact, published in English. Some of these works include:
Night on the Galactic Railroad (sometimes titles Milky Way Railroad)
Gauche the Cellist
The Restaurant of Many Orders
Wild Pear (Yamanashi)
The Nighthawk Star
The Kenju Park Grove
Ame ni mo Makezu + selected poems
Furthermore, I found the following English picture books of Miyazawa works in the souvenir shop of the Kenji Miyazawa Memorial Museum:
The Telegraph Poles on a Moonlit Night
The Bears of Mt. Nametoko
Judge Wildcat and the Acorns
The Kenju Park Grove
The Shining Feet
Crossing the Snow
The Twin Stars
Where to Start
As an entry point, I would recommend Night on the Galactic Railroad. It is not only Miyazawa’s most famous and influential work, it’s fantastic nature and universal themes also make it accessible.
I also recommend the works that show Miyazawa’s love for the nature of his home, the Iwate prefecture, e.g. Matasaburō of the Wind or Taneyamagahara.
In addition, I consider the anime adaptions of Matasaburō of the Wind (2016), The Restaurant of Many Orders (1991/1994) and The Life of Gusko Budori (2013) good entry points. I will write more about them in the next article.