Night on the Galactic Railroad, or the Apple, the Scorpion, and the Stars
This place is cursed with spoilers.
Night on the Galactic Railroad (1927) is a novella by Kenji Miyazawa. It takes place in the fictional fairy tale country resembling Italy. There, on the night of the annual Centuarus Festival, two boys, Giovanni and Campanella, are whisked away on the titular Galactic Railroad to tour the heavens. While on this journey, they confront the nature of human connection, transience, and sacrifice. At the end of the story, Giovanni and Campanella part ways. Campanella was on the train because he drowned during the festival and was on his way to the afterlife, while Giovanni, still alive, was allowed on the journey with his friend.
Mawaru Penguindrum specifically seems to be influenced by the 1985 anime adaptation directed by Gisaburo Sugii. It’s a faithful adaptation, but it plays up the story’s somber parts. The darkness at Penguindrum’s core seems borrowed from this version of the story rather than the original. Shouma and Kanba resemble Giovanni and Campanella as realized in this version.
Giovanni (right) and Campanella (left) on the Galactic Railroad.
Like Giovanni, Shouma is associated with the color blue and has a sensitive, demure personality. Like Campanella, Kanba is associated with red and is determined, distant, but ultimately devoted to his friends. Unlike NotGR, however, Shouma and Kanba depart together at the end. It seems to me as if Ikuhara has dwelt on the sadness of Giovanni and Campanella’s parting at the end of the original story and, in Penguindrum, created a version where they could be together in the end. Penguindrum also explicitly references Kenji Miyazawa in its first and last scenes. Near the beginning of the first episode, a pair of children are walking out side the Takakura’s home discussing what the apple means in NotGR. You can tell because they mention Campanella and someone named Kenji - the novella’s author Kenji Miyazawa. This exact conversation repeats in the final moments of the last episode, but this time the boys have Shouma and Kanba’s hair colors and the audience follows them as they keep walking into the stars.
THE SCORPION FIRE
Night on the Galactic Railroad also contains the explanation for that scorpion metaphor! A lot of people get stuck on this - Kanba is referred to as a scorpion several times throughout Penguindrum, and allusions are made to him burning up. This is actually direct reference to NotGR, where the story of the burning scorpion exists as a fable told to the main characters as they’re on the train. You can see it in this clip:
“"My father told me its story: A long time ago in a field there lived a scorpion that ate other bugs by using its tale to catch them. Then one day he found himself cornered by a weasel. Fearing for his life, he ran but could not escape it. Suddenly, he fell into a well and, unable to climb out, began to drown. He started to pray then, saying:
”‘Oh, God. How many lives have I stolen to survive? Yet when it came my turn to be eaten by the weasel, I selfishly ran away. And for what? What a waste my life has been! If only I’d let the weasel eat me, I could have helped him live another day. God, please hear my prayer. Even if my life has been meaningless, let my death be of help to others. Burn my body so that it may become a beacon, to light the way for others as they search for true happiness.’
“The scorpion’s prayer was answered, and his body became a beautiful crimson flame that shot up into the night sky. There he burns to this day. My father was telling the truth…”
From Night on the Galactic Railroad, translation by Julianne Neville.
The fable of the scorpion fire is about sacrifice. The scorpion, who lived his life as a foul predator, faces something more powerful than him - the inevitability of death - and regrets that, after a life of heedless consumption, he couldn’t die in a way that aided the proliferation of life. The gods hear his prayers and set him on fire, turning him into the red star Antares, heart of the constellation scorpio, whose light aids life.
From episode 12. Kanba offers his life to the Princess of the Crystal’s in exchange for Himari’s and, due to the purity of his sacrifice, it is acceptable. Unlike later on in the series, here Kanba is exhibiting the true nature of sacrifice.
This fable gives insight into Kanba’s motivations but not his actions. While the scorpion discovers his kinship with all life, Kanba is rushing headlong towards a sacrifice that nobody wants but him. Kanba views himself as a predator and wants his final, massive act of predation - the terrorist attack - to lead to some concrete good: extending Himari’s life. His role as a man of action rather than a man of reflection (Shouma) binds him to Sanetoshi’s will, which offers a convenient means of achieving his goal. But those outs don’t exist in the real world, and these justifications can’t be made ahead of time. Shouma knew this and Kanba should have known. Maybe that’s why it’s Shouma, the brother with a more intuitive understanding of sacrifice, who bursts into flames and not Kanba, who fades away. Kanba’s identification with the scorpion represents misguided, emotionally selfish sacrifice - egoism - while Shouma, Ringo, and Momoka’s association with the purer flame represents true, transcendent sacrifice.
From episode 24. Ringo casting the spell (“Let’s share the fruit of fate!”) and subjecting herself to the scorpion fire.
There’s a scene late in the novella where Giovanni and Campanella encounter some people who died on the Titanic. The trio consists of two children and their governor, who allowed them all to die to make room for more people on the lifeboat. These people tell Giovanni and Campanella about the scorpion fire, and this is also where apples come into play. A lighthouse keeper, traveling down the train, gives them some apples, which they disperse amongst themselves. The film actually makes it so that the flocks of birds that they see flying outside the windows turn into the apples - something that wasn’t present in the original story. Apples as a metaphor for live sacrificing itself for the sustenance of more life seems to originate here, since that wasn’t tied to the apples in the original story.
Christianity, apples symbolize knowledge and defilement. NotGR however, reclaims that image. Here, they represent people understanding their limitations as individuals and accepting community - and the necessity of making sacrifices for humanity’s greater good - as a way to make up for their flaws. NotGR stresses over and over again that people value humanity or some abstract conception of “life” over themselves, and that this path leads to profound spiritual contentment. Penguindrum borrows this idea and the apple symbolism wholeheartedly, but emphasizes valuing one’s interpersonal relationships as a proxy for loving all life.
From episode 20. Himari reinterprets the biblical Fall of Man as a good thing because it allowed humanity to experience connection and joy, however transient, alongside pain.
One of the biggest mysteries left in Penguindrum to me is what Kanba sharing the apple with Shouma represents. I know what happened between Shouma/Himari and Kanba/Himari. Shouma brought the abandoned Himari into his family and Himari brought Kanba into the family after his father’s death. But what happened between Kanba and Shouma? How did Kanba have to save Shouma by sharing his fruit of fate? It’s left purely abstract - Shouma and Kanba were starving, Kanba shared his fruit, and both were saved by the gesture. Maybe Kanba helped Shouma by being assertive and dedicated in situations where he wasn’t naturally inclined towards that? Like Giovanni and Campanella, Kanba and Shouma have complementary existences. Giovanni couldn’t exist on his own without adopting some of Campanella’s traits, while Kanba and Shouma, although they acquiesce to each other a bit, ultimately reaffirm their paired existence. I opened this up to discussion with some people on twitter and Bryan Baxter suggested that the two boxes Kanba and Shouma are in during episodes 23 and 24 are their mothers’ wombs, and that by sharing the fruit of fate they became spiritual twins (they were born on the same day). Yoni Linder suggested that Kanba helped Shouma survive the KIGA group’s brainwashing when they were children. It is odd that Shouma, the Takakura actually born into the cult, is the one least susceptible to it.
The idea that there’s something beyond what we consider life is central to NotGR, which uses Christian imagery and often seems overtly Christian in its themes. Kenji Miyazawa was a devout practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism, but like many Japanese people his life was saturated with Christian imagery and scraps of biblical scripture. Christianity exists and is portrayed positively in NotGR, but neither Giovanni nor Campanella seem to be practitioners. When Giovanni and the children get into an argument over whose god is “real,” the tutor reconciles them by raising the possibility that their gods are one and the same and reminding them that the point of religion is true faith in what you believe. NotGR is thus a neutral but positive synthesis of Christian and Buddhist images towards a more generically humanist message.
“"And who says he’s the real God? I’ll be he’s a fake!”
“How would you know? Maybe the God you believe in is the fake.”
“No! He’s the real one!”
“Then tell me, what kind of God is your God?” asked the young man with a gentle smile.
“Well… to be honest, I’m not quite sure… but I do know he is the one true God,” Giovanni replied.
“Of course he is. There’s only one true God."
"And my God is that one!”
“I agree. I can only pray that the two of you are seeing us off before that true God now,” the young man said, clasping his hands together. Kaoru also clasped her hands together.
Everyone was sad to be parting, and Giovanni was about to burst into tears.“
From Night on the Galactic Railroad, translation by Julianne Neville.
Over time, it becomes clearer and clearer that one of the railroad’s purposes is to deliver people to the afterlife, two of which are represented by giant glowing crosses. "Dying for love” thus means something more concrete in NotGR than it does in Penguindrum. There’s an actual reward for doing it - entrance into heaven. The same isn’t true in Penguindrum, where the existence of an afterlife is much more abstract. Sanetoshi and Momoka were humans with some supernatural powers who died and became ghosts, but that form of afterlife seems much more a curse than a reward. In the last episode, Momoka vanishes from this world for good through some sort of opening, but exactly where she goes is unknown. Penguindrum’s final shot is of Shouma and Kanba, having died for love, walking into the stars. While characters do allude to god, the show as a whole seems nonreligious, more concerned with taking the aspects of stories it deems meaningful and applying them towards a new, secular humanist message. Here, god is synonymous with fate, chance, or destiny - the circumstances outside human control that one is subjected to and dictate life. So what is Kenji saying? I think he’s saying that humanity’s survival up to this point has been due to our ability to love each other, to willingly sacrifice for the greater good, and that this is the foundation for human existence. That's where everything really begins.