Sunday, February 18, 2018

The Bullet Train (1975)

Original title: Shinkansen daubakuha

This write-up concerns the full 152 minute version of the film. The various international cuts of 90 to 100 minutes length leave out so much that’s important for the film it’s not even funny.

A small group of desperate and despondent men under the leadership of Tetsuo Okita (Ken Takakura) hide a bomb on a Japanese bullet train. It’s an interesting construction that certainly would not be borrowed by a later US movie about a speeding bus at all, oh no, for it activates when the train goes over the speed of 80 km/h and will blow up once it falls under that limit again. Okita and his men attempt to blackmail a considerable amount of money from the train company, seeing the operation as a crime where nobody will get hurt.

Unfortunately, the police do their best to get as many people hurt as possible, or so it seems, first killing the youngest of Okita’s men during a fake money handover, later heavily wounding but letting escape Okita’s other partner in the next one, and not really getting anywhere with their other inquiries.

While the cops are mishandling the situation, the chief of operations for the shinkansen trains, Kuramochi (Ken Utsui), and an increasingly sweaty and desperate train driver (Shinichi “Sonny” Chiba) try to find the bomb, keep increasingly crazed passengers sane, and resolve the whole situation before the higher political echelons decide that 1,500 people dying on an exploding train an hour earlier than they otherwise would is a perfectly reasonable exchange for the infrastructural costs of having it explode at a station.

Junya Sato’s highly melodramatic crime thriller shouldn’t work at all. It seems, on first look, overly long, with two and a half hours of train stuff, flashbacks to the past of Okita and his people, a birth on board the train that ends badly, and many, many scenes of actors looking dramatically at switchboards and such. However, Sato and his cast treat nearly every single moment of the film with immense intensity, with everyone’s emotions permanently dialled up to eleven and staying there throughout. This larger than life quality to all emotions is perhaps straddling the line to self-parody, but for my taste, it never stumbles over it, and instead uses bigness as a way to grab its audience emotionally in any way it can.

Plus, if you have Sonny Chiba and not decide to let him beat anyone up, you’ll at least need to have him sweat a lot and lose his emotional cool in ways huge enough for him (side note: he’s actually playing a bit less over the top than he usually does, just ends up still taking up the space of two normal actors, or five Tom Cruises); if you hire Ken Takakura, you of course need to have a lot of close-ups on his sad eyes and provide him with a tragic backstory for his new life of crime that even manages to sell his death in the end (as always with these cops, by shots in the back probably fired because they were too lazy to run after an unarmed man) as something bad, despite him having risked the lives of 1,500 people and indirectly killed a baby.

The true moral centre and hero of the film though is Kuramochi, portrayed by Utsui as a man who mixes professionalism with deep emotional involvement and a huge sense of integrity. He is, therefor, the character who most obviously makes various of the film’s ethical arguments. For yes, it turns out this big, loud, melodramatic film also has some remarks to make about the way destiny always seems to kick the little guy when he’s already down, and the unpreparedness of then contemporary Japanese (and not only there and then) society to pick up the universe’s slack. Also under angry scrutiny is the concept of the lesser evil (the movie’s not a fan).

If all this still sounds like a bit much for one film – it isn’t. Sato manages to hold the necessary tension for it all to work throughout, with nary a boring minute. Best of all, he seems in full control of his small army of plot threads and characters, knowing when he can shuffle between them regularly and when it’s time to keep us longer in a sequence. While the director generally doesn’t show the more eccentric, psychedelic and avant-garde tendencies of Japanese 70s genre cinema, this is still a technically very convincing film, with action sequences choreographed to the point, and demonstrating the often nearly uncanny way even the lesser directors of this era in Japanese cinema had with the blocking of scenes.

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