Eastern Premise #81 – Bullet Train

Eastern Premise takes a bit of a left-turn this week, with Jason Julier tackling a Sonny Chiba disaster flick from the mid-1970’s.

This week Eastern Premise ventures into the realm of Japanese disaster movies. While most disasters occur due to botched scientific experiments, genetic mutations or alien invaders, many situations owe their existence to terrorists or political extremists. A noteworthy example is Junya Sato’s 1975 epic Shinkansen daibakuha (Bullet Train), which was released to average reviews but has gained a new lease of life thanks to video and DVD.

The 70’s were the decade of huge Hollywood blockbusters that replicated unlikely disastrous scenarios across America. Audiences lapped up these thrilling experiences and the trend was not lost on studio executives across the Pacific in Japan. These films were growing in popularity, threatening what little domestic cinema was left in Japan that was already struggling against the might of television. Bullet Train is very much the Japanese take on an unlikely scenario and formed the inspiration for Jan de Bont’s 1994 action thriller, Speed. Due to production issues, Bullet Train’s theatrical releasewas delayed by several months resulting in it going up against The Towering Inferno in theatres and removing any opportunity for success.

Junya Sato has featured in an earlier episode of Eastern Premise with his blockbuster Battleship Yamato from 2005. As a director he has made a career from directing such lavish productions to mixed effect. Having started out originally at Toei assisting directors such as Daisuke Ito, Sato made his own debut with the fiercely titled Rikugun zangyaku monogatari or Story of Military Cruelty in 1963. Very much a statement, the film highlighted the treatment of conscripts into the Japanese army and suggested that Sato was a filmmaker worth watching. Such messages gave way to films about love triangles and crime efforts that focused on the lives of the Yakuza. Throughout this early phase of his career, Sato was known for his gritty approach to filming, but it was not until he teamed up with actor Ken Takakura in the 70’s and focused on the action genre that success truly arrived. 

Bullet Train’s original and unique selling point is the use of a bomb that is triggered when a vehicle, or in this case Hikari 109, drops below a set velocity of 80km per hour. Having already established the effectiveness of the ingenious bomb on a minor train, the group of criminals set their sights on the showcase Japanese mode of transport. The team is an unlikely band consisting of low ranking criminals, drifters, a radical technical genius and a bankrupt. We’re only granted brief insights into their backgrounds and their journeys to reach this point in their lives. Their bonds are close, as confirmed by their actions but we are kept at arm’s length throughout the film, as Sato’s focus is everywhere else. Ken Takakura tries his best to lift his role as the main criminal and organiser, but he seems disinterested by the plot and merely does enough to convince.

One of the main issues with the film is its epic nature also spreads to its running time which is stretched to an uncomfortable length. The pedestrian pacing is noticeable and the over explaining of minor plot characters becomes a sore point. Littered with clichés that include annoying passengers and a woman in labour, we also have to contend with the bungling detectives who stumble through a series of mishaps. What does remain refreshing about Bullet Train is the lack of effects or cutting edge technology. This is very much an old-school ransom heist with simple origins and demands. A train with hundreds of passengers can be yours for just 5 million dollars and nothing more. Messages are exchanged via public telephone booths and explosions are powered by dynamite.

The film is an interesting oddity which had a decent budget by Japanese standards but was a poor cousin compared to the American productions it was going up against. Bullet Train is consistently let down by poor directing and editing. Worth highlighting is the use of bullet train stock footage or more likely a 2nd unit delegated to provide train shots that brings nothing to the equation apart from repetition and a shaky helicopter view from above. These first intrude during the low budget opening credits and continue to appear and unsettle the film consistently. At times Bullet Train does make for hilarious viewing particularly when another train attempts to deliver a vital component to the blighted bomb train. A scene involves hugely animated train workers trying to push and pull an object whilst both trains are in motion. Laughable and at the same time painful to watch, what could be a gripping and adrenaline fuelled sequence devalued into an amateurish tug of war; even the camera angles are woeful and any sense of drama is left marooned at departures. 

Train enthusiasts can import the film on DVD which highlights the presence of Sonny Chiba in proceedings although he is a minor character. Ideally your money can be better spent elsewhere as this is one film with a single unique characteristic that is completely scuppered by a poor script, editing and directing.

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