The life story of Kenji Miyazawa, whose work “Night on the Milky Way Railroad” has become a classic of children’s literature, is one full of tragedy, as recounted in this heartbreaking biopic. Born in 1890 to Masajiro (Koji Yakusho) and Ichi (Maki Sakai), young Kenji is afflicted with a disease at an early age. Out of love for his son, his father stays with him in the hospital until he recovers. After recieving an education, Kenji (Masaki Suda) has his head full of foreign literature, refusing to take on his father’s pawn shop business. After becoming involved in the Nichiren Buddhist sect, Kenji begins writing, honouring a promise to his sister Toshi (Nana Mori), who contracts tuberculosis. Toshi loved Kenji’s tales as a child, and took his words that he would be the Japanese Hans Christian Anderson to heart. Kenji begins writing for Toshi, who sadly passes away, and later for his father who promises to be his biggest fan.

Unusually for a biopic, “Father of the Milky Way Railroad” resigns Kenji Miyazawa largely to a supporting role. Although we follow him through the important moments in his life: his early illness, his dalliance with Nichiren Buddhism, his educating of local farmers in agricultural science, his numerous disagreements with his father; it is in fact Masajiro who is at the heart of the drama. Despite his pride in his son, Kenji’s often naive, petulant, behaviour leads to them squabbling and reconciling a number of times. It is a charming depiction of this father-son relationship, with spellbinding performances from Koji Yakusho and Masaki Suda. The love they have for one another; their frustration at each other’s outlook due to the generational divide; Masajiro’s pride in his son’s achievements; and Kenji’s constant desire for his father’s praise, are sure to resonate with parents and children alike. Based on a novel by Yoshinobu Kado, with a screenplay by Riko Sakaguchi, director Izuru Narushima crafts a film that has a picturebook quality at times, with stunning landscapes depicted and the stylish reconstruction of early 20th Century Japan appearing as something straight out of a historical novel. Moments of high drama are captured with hand-held camerawork that highlights the incredible performances, not only from Yakusho and Suda, but from Nana Mori as Toshi, and Min Tanaka as Kenji’s grandfather. The scene of Kenji’s grandfather’s senility is particularly moving. The film is packed with tragic moments yet manages to remain optimistic in its outlook, perhaps due to the postive worldview of Kenji himself, whose humble selflessness shines through.

A lovingly crafted biopic of this renowned author, “Father of the Milky Way Railroad” will appeal to fans of the writer, who will enjoy this depiction of Kenji Miyazawa’s life and the relationships he had with his family, particularly his father and sister. For those unfamiliar with Miyazawa’s work there is still plenty to enjoy here, from the incredible period sets and costumes to the beautiful score. The final scene is a fitting tribute to Miyazawa’s life and work that encapsulates the eternal optimism of the author.

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