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)

Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Sadao Nakajima, 1973)

aesthetics of a bullet1973 is the year the ninkyo eiga died. Or that is to say, staggered off into an alleyway clutching its stomach and vowing revenge whilst simultaneously seeking forgiveness from its beloved oyabun after being cruelly betrayed by the changing times! You might think it was Kinji Fukasaku who turned traitor and hammered the final nail into the coffin of Toei’s most popular genre, but Sadao Nakajima helped ram it home with the riotous explosion of proto-punk youth movie and jitsuroku-style naturalistic look at the pettiness and squalor inherent in the yakuza life – Aesthetics of a Bullet (鉄砲玉の美学, Teppodama no Bigaku). This tale of a small time loser playing the supercool big shot with no clue that he’s a sacrificial pawn in a much larger power struggle is one that has universal resonance despite the unpleasantness of its “hero”.

Kiyoshi Koike is a former chef with a gambling problem and a living room full of rabbits that he bought hoping to sell as pets but his sales patter could use some work and the business is not exactly taking off. Getting violent with his girlfriend after borrowing money from her to play mahjong and then getting annoyed when she doesn’t seem keen to lend him more to change his rabbit business into a dog business, Kiyoshi is at an impasse. So, when the local gangsters are looking for a patsy they can send into enemy territory as a “bullet” Kiyoshi’s name is high on the list. They need someone “hotblooded, must have daredevil courage, when he flips he should make a huge racket” – Kiyoshi more than fits the bill, and more to the point he has no idea what he’s doing.

Given a large amount of money and a gun, Kiyoshi gets a haircut and buys some fancy suits to play his part as a super cool gangster who doesn’t take any shit from anyone. He goes around telling everyone his name and gang affiliation very loudly, waving his pistol and acting like a big shot despite the fact he obviously has no name and no reputation. The plan is he fires his gun, gets killed, his gang swoop in for a gang war and wipe out the opposition. Only, when Kiyoshi gets too invested in his part and beats up a rival gangster, the local boss apologises and offers him a knife to make things even with the guy who just disrespected him…

If he fires his gun, it’s game over but what exactly is keeping his finger off the trigger – fear, or self preservation? Either way, Kiyoshi is way over his head in a game he never understood in the first place.

This is no ninkyo eiga. There’s no nobility here, these men are animals with no humanity let alone a pretence of honour. Kiyoshi is a loser, through and through, but once the gun is in his hand he transforms into something else. The gun becomes an extension of himself, a symbol of his new found gangster hero status. A fancy suit and a fire arm are handy props for a method actor but the performance only runs so deep, what is Kiyoshi now, a man, or a bullet?

Whatever he is, he’s no hero. In his untransformed state he violently beat his girlfriend whom he also forced to work as a prostitute, and even after getting the gun he witnesses a woman being gang raped yet appears to be more amused than anything else. He ends up getting into a fight with the other two guys waiting for their go and seems to feel heroic after the woman gets away but his intention was never to rescue her. Indeed, bumping into her again he makes a clumsy attempt at subtle blackmail though she gets a kind of revenge on him in the end. Even his “romantic” encounter with the glamorous former photo model girlfriend of the rival gang boss ends with a bizarre sex game in which he makes her get on all fours and bark like a dog.

When the time comes, Kiyoshi can’t contemplate the idea of returning to his old loser self and is fixated on reaching the peak of Kirishima which is said to be the place where the gods descended to Earth. When the bullet finally emerges, it heads in the wrong direction. Self inflicted wounds are the name of the game as an aesthetically pleasing, poetic end to this tragic story follows the only trajectory available for a classic yakuza fable.

After beginning with a montage of people sloppily eating junk food set against a proto-punk rock song dedicated to the idea of living the way you please and not letting anyone get in your way, the film contrasts the independent, non-conformist yakuza ideal of total freedom with Kiyoshi’s lowly status in an increasingly consumerist environment. The yakuza life would indeed prove a passport for a man like Kiyoshi to jump into the mainstream, but this fantasy world is one that cannot last and one way or another the curtain must fall on this expensive piece of advanced performance art.

Aesthetics of a Bullet has, like its hero, been abandoned on the roadside. Whereas the Battles Without Honour series has become a landmark of the yakuza genre, Aesthetics of a Bullet has never even received a home video release in Japan and has received barely a mention even the histories of ATG movies. This is surprising as its noir style and art house approach ought to have made it one of ATG’s more commercially viable releases even with its sleazy, nihilistic tone. Opting for a more naturalistic approach, Nakajima nevertheless breaks the action with expressionistic sequences as Kiyoshi fantasises a glorious death for himself, climaxes through gunshot, or remembers the student riots through a blue tinted sequence of still photographs. A complex yet beautifully made, genre infused character piece, Aesthetics of a Bullet is a long lost classic and one in urgent need of reappraisal.


Title sequence and first scene (unsubtitled)