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)

Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Masayuki Suo, 1992)

sumo do sumo don'tConsidering how well known sumo wrestling is around the world, it’s surprising that it doesn’t make its way onto cinema screens more often. That said, Masayuki Suo’s Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t (シコふんじゃった, Shiko Funjatta) displays an ambivalent attitude to this ancient sport in that it’s definitely uncool, ridiculous, and prone to the obsessive fan effect, yet it’s also noble – not only a game of size and brute force but of strategy and comradeship. Not unlike Suo’s later film for which he remains most well known, Shall We Dance, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t uses the presumed unpopularity of its central activity as a magnet which draws in and then binds together a disparate, originally reluctant collection of central characters.

We begin with a lecture given by Professor Anayama (Akira Emoto) in which he recounts the brief mention of sumo in the work of Jean Cocteau. It seems that Anayama is something of a sumo fanatic and had previously been a champion wrestler in his student days. Shuhei Yamamoto (Masahiro Motoki) is currently registered for Anayama’s class but he’s here on a party mandate and never attends classes – he even has someone raise their hand for him at registration. Shuhei already has a job offer for when he leaves so he needs to graduate – Anayama makes him a proposition, join the currently moribund sumo club and he’ll forget about the lack of attendance problem and fill his credits up too.

Actually, the sumo club has only one member – fanatical sumo fan and mature student, Aoki (Naoto Takenaka). Aoki takes tradition very seriously and it’s not long before he’s got Shuhei in a traditional “mawashi” sash (don’t call it a fundoshi!) and parading about the campus trying to find others they might be able to coerce into the club so they can compete in the next competition. Luckily they run into shy student Hosaku (Hiromasa Taguchi) who’s quickly convinced to help them keep the sumo club open, before also recruiting Shuhei’s younger brother Haruno (a refugee from the regular wrestling team), and even a foreign student, George Smiley, who only joins up to save on his rent. Together, they face an uphill battle but can they really conquer this demanding game with so little experience between them?

At heart, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a standard sports comedy in which a rag tag collection of amateurs attempt to triumph over adversity whilst finding out more about themselves and each other.  No one, other than Aoki, really wanted to be in the sumo club with its embarrassing attire and total lack of social kudos. Shuhei is only there because he needs the grades, but after seeing how much Aoki cares about his sport he becomes determined to support his new found friend. Similarly, Hosaku had been leading quite a lonely life but enjoys being part of a team where his friends enthusiastically cheer him on.

By bringing in the foreign student (supposedly an English rugby player but played by an American with an unusually gung-ho attitude) Suo attempts to define sumo and, in a roundabout way, other aspects of Japanese culture from a more detached view point. “You Japanese never think things through” he’s fond of saying after asking a perfectly logical question that no one seems able to answer such as why they have a shrine to a household god in their clubhouse when this is a Christian university or why it’s frowned upon for him to wear shorts underneath his mawashi. Later, the group get a hanger on in the form of Masako (Ritsuko Umemoto) who has taken a liking to sumo, and more particularly to Haruno. Women aren’t allowed in the sumo ring but this is one aspect of tradition that it seems even the sumo diehards are prepared to let go. Far from the serious and rarified sumo world, the sumo club is a strictly equal opportunities enterprise built on mutual trust and acceptance. No one who loves the beautiful art of sumo is getting turned away.

Perhaps with less serious intent that some of Suo’s later works, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is a prime example of the ensemble comedy drama. The essence of the humour is physical leaning mainly on slapstick but with a side serving of wit and irony. Suo keeps things simple and straightforward, allowing the gentle comedy to emerge organically underpinned by strong characterisation and performances. Unashamedly feel good yet never tipping over into the mawkishly sentimental, Sumo Do, Sumo Don’t is the best kind of sports comedy where the outcome itself is almost irrelevant in light of the greater game that’s been in play right the way through.


Unsubbed trailer: