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)

Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (女囚701号/さそり, Shunya Ito, 1972)

scorpion-701Meiko Kaji had already become a familiar face in Nikkatsu’s genre output when she took on the role that would come to define her career at only 25 years of age. Toei’s Female Prisoner #701: Scorpion (女囚701号/さそり, Joshu Nana-maru-ichi Go / Sasori) would launch a series of similarly themed films and create a national pop culture icon in its central character. Based on a manga by Toru Shinohara, Female Prisoner #701 Scorpion is, at heart, a women in prison film and a cornerstone of the pinky violence genre but first time director Shunya Ito has more on his mind than salacious thrills and offers up a noticeably nuanced approach to his material filled with impressive art house flourishes.

701 is the number printed on the back of the prison uniform worn by inmate Nami Matsushima (Meiko Kaji). She makes a valiant escape attempt with a fellow prisoner, Yuki (Yayoi Watanabe), but the pair are caught and put into solitary confinement where they experience torturous treatment both at the hands of the guards and their fellow prisoners. Mostly known as Matsu but also given the nickname of “Scorpion”, Prisoner #701 is not exactly popular with the other ladies in the joint who seem to resent her escape attempts and quiet dignity, annoyed by her above it all demeanour.

Matsu has just one mission in life – vengeance, on the man who wronged her, on the society that allowed her to be wronged, and on the prison system with its sadistic guards and turncoat inmates. Once an ordinary, law abiding woman, Matsu had the misfortune to fall in love with a vice cop who convinced her to go undercover in a yakuza club to get some vital info he needs to bust it. However, Sugima (Isao Natsuyagi) turns out to be the biggest crook of them all and was merely using her to try and take out the local yakuza to get in with a bigger yakuza boss and key into a slice of the drugs trade. Matsu is brutally gang raped after her cover is blown and ends up being sent to prison after making an attempt to ice her former lover with the desire to get out and complete her mission the only thing that’s keeping her going.

Ito begins with an ironic scene in which one of the prison guards is receiving a commendation for his honourable service, Japanese flag flying proudly behind above, until the occasion is interrupted by the escaped prisoner alarm. Later Ito puts the yakuza boss in a building bearing the large banner “Beautiful Soul and Harmony of Japan” and he even adds in an expressive moment as Matsu surrenders her virginity to Sugima, staining her white sheets with a large red circle. Society is corrupt everywhere from Sugima’s bent copper to gang raping yakuza and the prison system itself.

The guards are effectively running their own little empire, cut off from mainstream law enforcement and left to their own “corrective” impulses. Ito gives us salacious shower scenes and women being marched around in the nude but he places us in the place of a voyeur, making it plain that the prison guards are sating their lust for power through humiliating their charges in sexual dominance and violence. Divide and rule is the name of the game as a top tier of prisoners are “employed” in various prison tasks earning them a different colour uniform and a status bump. These ladies are even worse than some of the male guards and are responsible for much of the cruelty inflicted on Matsu and Yuki during their time in solitary.

Inter-prisoner conflict is not the central theme of the film as Matsu continues to plan for her eventual escape and revenge on the man who has ruined her life. A slight spanner is thrown in the works when an inside woman is recruited to take Matsu out, but Matsu is painted as a the ultimate vengeful warrior. Barely speaking (the bulk of her dialogue is actually voice over for her flashback scene), Matsu waits silently, observing and plotting. Biding her time she manages to take an extremely skilful and poetic revenge against her solitary abuser despite her hands and feet being bound, and when a police mole is placed in a cell with her Matsu sees through the ruse straight away. Seducing her new cellmate, Matsu neutralises the threat with ease maintaining her trademark intense elegance all the way through.

Though the synopsis smacks of cheap and nasty exploitation Ito doesn’t see it that way and films with an art house aesthetic rather than a salacious eye. Matsu’s flashback takes a very theatrical form with a rotating set and Matsu remaining present in the corner as she narrates. Her rape scene is grotesque and nightmarish, shot through a see-through floor as her attackers grin and gurn away at her like fairytale monsters. Likewise, when Matsu traps another prisoner in her own scheme, the woman turns into a classic ghost creature, face white and staring, broken glass firmly gripped manically in front. The acting style is broad and absurd. Policeman laugh loudly and for too long, blood is an artificial kind of red, gloopy like paint, and pantomimeish grotesquery is everywhere. Ito’s backgrounds are expressionist rather than realist but always perfectly pitched.

You can tell a lot about a place from the way it treats its prisoners and when its as bad as this, you start to wonder which side of the bars you’re really on. The guards are only a representation of a consistently exploitative society, but they can at least be outsmarted. “To be deceived is a woman’s crime”, says Matsu, but it’s one she fully intends to atone for – in blood, settling not just her own score but those of all her fellow prisoners caught in the patriarchal trap of hollow promises and abused honour.


Original trailer (English subtitles)