The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Junya Sato, 1975)

bullet train posterFor one reason or another, the 1970s gave rise to a wave of disaster movies as Earthquakes devastated cities, high rise buildings caught fire, and ocean liners capsized. Japan wanted in on the action and so set about constructing its own culturally specific crisis movie. The central idea behind The Bullet Train (新幹線大爆破, Shinkansen Daibakuha) may well sound familiar as it was reappropriated for the 1994 smash hit and ongoing pop culture phenomenon Speed, but even if de Bont’s finely tuned rollercoaster was not exactly devoid of subversive political commentary The Bullet Train takes things one step further.

A bomb threat has been issued for bullet train Hikari 109. This is not a unique occurrence – it happens often enough for there to be a procedure to be followed, but this time is different. So that the authorities don’t simply stop the train to find the device as normal, it’s been attached to a speedometer which will trigger the bomb if the train slows below 80mph. A second bomb has been placed on a freight train to encourage the authorities to believe the bullet train device is real and when it does indeed go off, no one quite knows what to do.

The immediate response to this kind of crisis is placation – the train company does not have the money to pay a ransom, but assures the bomber that they will try and get the money from the government. Somewhat unusually, the bomber is played by the film’s biggest star, Ken Takakura, and is a broadly sympathetic figure despite the heinous crime which he is in the middle of perpetrating.

The bullet train is not just a super fast method of mass transportation but a concise symbol of post-war Japan’s path to economic prosperity. fetching up in the 1960s as the nation began to cast off the lingering traces of its wartime defeat and return to the world stage as the host of the 1964 olympics, the bullet train network allowed Japan to ride its own rails into the future. All of this economic prosperity, however, was not evenly distributed. Where large corporations expanded, the small businessman was squeezed, manufacturing suffered, and the little guy felt himself left out of the paradise promised by a seeming economic miracle.

Thus our three bombers are all members of this disenfranchised class, disillusioned with a cruel society and taking aim squarely at the symbol of their oppression. Takakura’s Okita is not so much a mad bomber as a man pushed past breaking point by repeated betrayals as his factory went under leading him to drink and thereby to the breakdown of his marriage. He recruits two helpers – a young boy who came to the city from the countryside as one of the many young men promised good employment building the modern Tokyo but found only lies and exploitation, and the other an embittered former student protestor, angry and disillusioned with his fellow revolutionaries and the eventual subversion of their failed revolution.

Their aim is not to destroy the bullet train for any political reason, but force the government to compensate them for failing to redistribute the economic boon to all areas of society. Okita seems to have little regard for the train’s passengers, perhaps considering them merely collateral damage or willing accomplices in his oppression. Figuring out that something is wrong with the train due to its slower speed and failure to stop at the first station the passengers become restless giving rise to hilarious scenes of salarymen panicking about missed meetings and offering vast bribes to try and push their way to the front of the onboard phone queue, but when a heavily pregnant woman becomes distressed the consequences are far more severe.

Left alone to manage the situation by himself, the put upon controller does his best to keep everyone calm but becomes increasingly frustrated by the inhumane actions of the authorities from his bosses at the train company to the police and government. Always with one eye on the media, the train company is more preoccupied with being seen to have passenger safety at heart rather than actually safeguarding it. The irony is that the automatic breaking system poses a serious threat now that speed is of the essence but when the decision is made to simply ignore a second bomb threat it’s easy to see where the priorities lie for those at the top of the corporate ladder.

Okita and his gang are underdog everymen striking back against increasing economic inequality but given that their plan endangers the lives of 1500 people, casting them as heroes is extremely uncomfortable. Sato keeps the tension high despite switching between the three different plot strands as Okita plots his next move while the train company and police plot theirs even if he can’t sustain the mammoth 2.5hr running time. A strange mix of genres from the original disaster movie to broad satire and angry revolt against corrupt authority, The Bullet Train is an oddly rich experience even if it never quite reaches its final destination.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Mr. Shosuke Ohara (小原庄助さん, AKA Ohara Shosuke-san, Hiroshi Shimizu, 1949)

vlcsnap-2016-09-25-01h34m07s636Ohara Shousuke-san (小原庄助さん) is the name of a character from a popular folk song intended to teach children how not to live their lives. The Ohara Shosuke-san of Aizu Bandaisan has lost all his fortune but no one feels very sorry for him because it’s his own fault – he spent his days in idleness, drinking, sleeping in, and bathing in the morning. The central character of Hiroshi Shimizu’s 1937 film has earned this nickname for himself because he also enjoys a drink or too and doesn’t actually do very much else, but unlike the character in the song this a goodhearted man much loved by the community because he’s a soft touch and just can’t refuse when asked for a favour. An acknowledgement of the changing times, Shimizu’s Mr. Shousuke Ohara is a tribute to the soft hearted but also an argument for action over passivity.

If you turn up one day and ask for directions to the Sugimoto household, everyone will look at you with confusion but if you ask for Mr. Shousuke Ohara everyone will gladly walk you over and introduce you. Saheita Sugimoto (Denjiro Okochi) is the head of a once proud samurai household but his fortunes are far from those of his ancestors. Despite his pecuniary difficulties, Sugimoto is good hearted man who wants to help everyone that he can (out of a sense of altruism rather than duty or vanity). Consequently he is deeply in debt and nearing bankruptcy yet he can’t give up any of his three vices – drinking, gambling, and generosity.

The nature of the changing times is at the centre of this 1949 film. As Sugimoto is fond of telling people, his noble house used to stand for something but all of that historical influence is next to meaningless now. Though Western dress is not uncommon, the village is pretty much as it’s always been – children play in the fields and Sugimoto travels everywhere by donkey. Other than the tale of Sugimoto’s fall from grace, the central narrative concerns an election for a new village chief. Yoshida, a youngish man, wants Sugimoto’s support for his election campaign. His main campaign policy is modernisation – the introduction of electricity, modern transportation and communications, as well as greater cultural involvement starting with opening Western style ballroom dance classes for the children. Unfortunately his policies are not that firm and his motto seems to be “I’ll do that first!” to all aspects of his plan which is not very encouraging but still the desire is very much to move away from old fashioned village life towards a more sophisticated urbanism.

This of course also means an end to the inherited influence of idle nobleman such as Sugimoto. Though he’s a kind man who likes nothing other than helping other people, Sugimoto has been a passive steward, more consumed with his own idle pursuits than with making an active attempt at leading the village. This passivity has contributed to his downfall as he’s neglected the business of maintaining his own fortune. After taking out numerous loans which he only ever uses to help the villagers, Sugimoto has let the estate which ancestors founded, and which he was supposed to look after in the names of all that have gone before and all were to come after him, slip away. The ultimate failure and a disgrace to his ancestors, this loss of the ancestral home is an unforgivable betrayal yet there is something in Sugimoto which seems to regard it as right and proper that it should go.

Change is coming to the village, even if it isn’t coming with the speed that a young man like Yoshida may be hoping for. Change is also coming to Japan which is in the progress of rebuilding itself anew following long years of folly followed by confusion. There is no room for genial idleness anymore. “If you can work honestly with your hands you can make a living”, Sugimoto tells two would-be-burglars that he invites in for a drink as a apology for not having anything left for them to steal, but means the advice more for himself than anyone else. It’s time to say goodbye to Shousuke Ohara and the burden of inherited privilege and chart a new course as Seihata Sugimoto. Finishing on another of Shimizu’s much loved road shots, Sugimoto, like his nation, walks confidently along the road to an uncertain future yet he is not alone as he goes and may make something of himself yet.