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)

Golden Slumber (ゴールデンスランバー, Yoshihiro Nakamura, 2010)

golden-slumberYoshihiro Nakamura has made a name for himself as a master of fiendishly intricate, warm and quirky mysteries in which seemingly random events each radiate out from a single interconnected focus point. Golden Slumber (ゴールデンスランバー), like The Foreign Duck, the Native Duck and God in a Coin Locker, and Fish Story, is based on a novel by Kotaro Isaka and shares something of the same structure but is far less interested in the mystery itself rather than the man who finds himself caught up in it.

30 year old delivery driver Aoyagi (Masato Sakai) is all set for a nice day out fishing with an old college buddy, Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka), but he’s about to discover that it’s he’s been hooked and reeled in as the patsy in someone else’s elaborate assassination plot. After grabbing some fast food, Morita takes Aoyagi to a parked car near the closed off area through which the Prime Minster is due to be paraded in an open topped car. Waking up after a brief period of drug induced sedation, Aoyagi is made aware that this has all been a trick – badly in debt thanks to his wife’s pachinko addiction, Morita has betrayed him to a set of undisclosed bad guys with unclear motives and is taking this brief opportunity to give him as much warning as he can. Sure enough, a bomb goes off at the parade and Aoyagi just manages to escape before Morita too is the victim of an explosion.

Aoyagi is now very confused and on the run. Inexplicably, the police seem to have CCTV footage of him in places he’s never been and doing things he’s never done. If he’s going to survive any of this, he’s going to need some help but caught between old friends and new, trust has just become his most valuable commodity.

At heart, Golden Slumber is a classic Wrong Man narrative yet it refuses to follow the well trodden formula in that it isn’t so much interested in restoring the protagonist to his former life unblemished as it is in giving him a new one. The well known Beatles song Golden Slumber which runs throughout the film plays into its neatly nostalgic atmosphere as each of the now 30 year old college friends find themselves looking back into those care free, joyous days before of the enormity of their adult responsibilities took hold. That is to say, aside from Aoyagi himself who seems to have been muddling along amiably before all of this happened to him, unmarried and working a dead end delivery job.

As Morita tells him in the car, it’s all about image. The nature of the conspiracy and the identity of the perpetrators is not the main the main thrust of the film, but the only possible motive suggested for why Aoyagi has been chosen stems back to his unexpected fifteen minutes of fame two years previously when he saved a pop idol from an intruder with a nifty judo move (taught to him by Morita in uni) after fortuitously arriving with a delivery. Those behind the conspiracy intend to harness his still vaguely current profile to grab even more media attention with a local hero turned national villain spin. The Prime Minister, it seems, was a constantly controversial, extreme right wing demagogue with a tendency for making off the cuff offensive statements so there are those who’d rather congratulate Aoyagi than bring him to justice, but anyone who’s ever met him knows none of this can really be true despite the overwhelming video evidence.

Throughout his long odyssey looking for “the way back home” as the song puts it, Aoyagi begins to remember relevant episodes from his life which may feed back into his current circumstances. Although it seems as if Aoyagi had not seen Morita in some time (he knew nothing of his family circumstances, for example) his college friends with whom he wasted time “reviewing” junk food restaurants and chatting about conspiracy theories are still the most important people in his life. Not least among them is former girlfriend Haruko (Yuko Takeuchi), now married and the mother of a little daughter, who seems to still be carrying a torch for her old flame and is willing to go to great lengths to help him in his current predicament.

The film seems mixed on whether these hazy college days are the “golden slumber”, a beautiful dream time enhanced by memory to which it is not possible to return, or whether it refers to Aoyagi’s post college life which impinges on the narrative only slightly when he asks an unreliable colleague for help, aside from an accidental moment of heroic celebrity. It could even refer to the film’s conclusion which, departing from the genre norms, resolves almost nothing save for the hero’s neat evasion of the trap (aided by the vexed conspirators who eventually opt for a plan B). Once there might have been a road home – a way back to the past and the renewing of old friendships, but this road seems closed now, severed by the new beginning promised to Aoyagi who has been robbed of his entire identity and all but the memory of his past. Whether this means that the golden slumber has ended and Aoyagi, along with each of the other nostalgia bound protagonists, must now wake up and start living the life he’s been given, or that the old Aoyagi has been consigned to the realm of golden slumbers, may be a matter for debate.

Though the resolution may appear ultimately unsatisfying, the preceding events provide just enough interconnected absurdity to guide it through. During his long journey, Aoyagi is aided not just by his old friends but new ones too including a very strange young serial killer (Gaku Hamada) and a hospital malingerer with one foot in the “underworld” (Akira Emoto). It speaks to Aoyagi’s character that all of those who know him trust him implicitly and are ready to help without even being asked (even if they occasionally waver under pressure), and even those who are meeting him for the first time are compelled to come to his defence.  An elliptical, roundabout tale of the weight of nostalgia and inescapability of regret, Golden Slumber is the story of a man on the run from his future which eventually becomes a net he cannot escape.


Original trailer (English subtitles – select via menu)