BR: Bullet Train / Shinkansen daibakuha (1975)

December 30, 2016 | By

BulletTrain1975_BRFilm: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  Twilight Time

Region: A

Released:  December 13, 2016

Genre:  Disaster / Action / Thriller

Synopsis: Unless a $5 million ransom is paid, a bomb planted on Japan’s sleek bullet train will explode when the train’s speed dips to 80 km.

Special Features: 

Special Features: Isolated Mono Music & Effects Track / Director Interview: “Big Movie, Big Panic: Junya Sato on The Bullet Train” (24:41) / 8-page colour booklet with liner notes by film historian Julie Kirgo / Limited to 3000 copies / Available exclusively from Screen Archives Entertainment and




As director Jun’ya Satô recounts in the lengthy interview featurette included in Twilight Time’s Blu-ray, Bullet Train stemmed from studio Toei’s desire to break into the international market with their own disaster film entry, and Satô came up with the concept of a train that had to keep running or risk a planted bomb exploding once the speed dropped below 80 km.

Sound familiar? Substitute a bus and you have Speed (1994), the hit thriller in which a similarly disgruntled ex-employee plants a bomb on a bus that can’t stop. Pay the ransom, and the passengers will live.

Satô’s script, co-written with Ryûnosuke Ono, retained several classic aspects of the disaster formula: bickering passengers, a pregnant woman at great risk, feats of heroism, and a high technology that aggravates attempted rescues and the overall safety of the passengers instead of putting them at ease.

Japan’s ground-breaking bullet train or Shinkansen line was developed after WWII and formally debuted in 1964, and over the next decade came new lines which interconnected cities and enabled insanely fast travel. Satô sought cooperation from Japan’s rail system, but was ultimately refused after the company dithered for a month, hence Toei’s construction of elaborate sets for the expansive control room, parts of the train station, and train interiors where much the drama occurs. A cameraman sneaked onto a bullet train and secretly filmed footage of passing cityscapes and countryside, while the control room was based on a description by a planted mole when the rail company refused entry to production staff.

To Toei and Satô’s credit, Bullet Train looks and sounds like a production almost entirely shot on location, but the film’s success is also due to the studio’s decision to pack top talent in minor and even cameo roles for extra box office insurance, and Satô and Ono’s script which puts in equal time on character backstories – the latter material often excised from foreign releases whose distributors wanted straight action, a problem that also affected the big budget disaster flick Virus / Fukkatsu no hi (1980).

The backstories admittedly mandate some context for non-Japanese audiences, as the trio of bombers represent aspects of working class society who were left behind as corporate giants overtook the country’s postwar economic success. The chief victims in the script were the independent businesses who failed or were smothered, hence the bomb’s architect being the owner of a folded factory that made precision tachometers. Okita (The Yakuza’s Ken Takakura) literally lives in the shell of his former factory, aided by Hiroshi (Akira Oda), one of many youths who migrated from the country to cities for high paying jobs; and loyal friend Koga (Kei Yamamoto), a member of the failed student protests. The unofficial fourth member is merely a thug (Eiji Gō) whose arrest briefly threatens the group’s plan to hold 1500 passengers (!) for ransom in exchange for $5 million US.

Okita’s expertise crafted the bomb mechanism, and once it’s nestled under the train, the plan must go forward. The film’s first third deals with the trio’s initial attempt to convince the train authorities to deliver the ransom money. There’s double-crossing and infighting between the police and the rail company, while in lengthy flashbacks Okita reflects on the group’s meetings where members share sour sentiments for the establishment, and plan the desperate act that’s supposed to offer financial reward for their economic and emotional pain, and shame the establishment for neglecting a spirited blue collar class.

In Speed, the lead terrorist is a vindictive loon perfectly at ease in killing people, but Okita isn’t after blood or vengeance; he’s developed a clean scheme, and to prove its effectiveness he sets up a demonstration in which a steam engine packed with a similar bomb explodes without harming anyone.

What’s threatened isn’t just human lives, but the rail system’s ethos for uncompromised passenger safety, hence their eventual compliance to Okita’s demands. The chief safeguard of passenger safety – the computerized ATC system that shuts down the train when specific actions trigger a precursor to a derailment or mechanical failure – initially becomes the train’s bigger danger, hence some hair-raising maneuvers which the rail operators devise to direct the train to a free track where it can continue at slightly reduced speeds and delay its collision at journey’s end.

Layered into the script are internecine conflicts between upper and mid-level rail management, and the police who winnow down leads, track, converge upon, and ultimately narrow their dragnet towards Okita.

The story’s structure is sound, but what glues the drama together are the superb performances, especially star Takakura who renders a terrorist into a folk hero. He doesn’t want to kill, doesn’t want to destroy, doesn’t want to taunt; he wants remuneration for what was taken from him when the economic miracle proved sour for his class of businessmen, and live out a life on a pension ‘indexed’ with blackmail money.

One never loses sympathy for Okita because he’s a reluctant terrorist; he doesn’t even carry a gun. When the end finally comes, there’s just sadness, and a warped sympathy tied to ‘If only they hadn’t screwed an honest man out of the small success he built from blood, sweat, and muscle’ – a wholly different finale to Speed which has a tacked-on fourth act in which heroes are shackled to an out-of-control subway car.

Satô describes Bullet Train as an ambitious production which had to meet a tight release date, but its initial failure at the box office was soon offset by foreign releases in France and other countries that garnered both positive reviews and revenues in spite of sometimes losing almost 40 mins. of footage. At its original 152 mins., this was a gamble, but Toei re-released the film in Japan, and it proved more successful, a quirk that seemed to have mandated foreign approval in order for local audiences to give the film a chance.

As in most disaster films, there’s steeped melodrama – a passenger’s pregnancy being the biggie – and some technical flaws that haven’t aged as well in the passing years. The model work is sometimes quite variable, and for all the excellent camerawork on the train and the cash drop-off montages, the aerial shots of the bullet train are affected by serious helicopter jitter.

These weaknesses, however, are frequently overwhelmed by the excellent performances, including Ken Utsui as the ever-professional rail dispatcher Kuramochi; and Shin’icho (Sonny) Chiba manages to make the train operator a bit ricjer, given his character spends most of the film terror-struck at the engine controls, keeping the speed often perilously close to the deadly 80 km mark.

Hachirô Aoyama’s score is rather schizophrenic, veering from eerie orchestral to funky jazz fusion, and most of the score sounds like a handful of cues that were routinely hacked up and placed over scenes – perhaps an indication the composer had limited time to score the entire picture. A lot of cues are repeated verbatim, but they mostly work in giving montages momentum, and a Morriconesque vocal cue adds emotional depth to the flashback scenes where Okita recalls sympathetic discussions with his emerging team: each man shares his feels in being a kind of societal cast-off, and it’s that understanding which solidifies their friendship, respect, and commitment to Okita’s suicidal plan.

Bullet Train first appeared on DVD in North America in Crash Cinema Media’s 2004 Kill Chiba Collection, which also included The Executioner (1974) and the Satô –directed Golgo 13: Assignment Kowloon (1973). That set featured the English-dubbed 116 min. U.S. cut that lacked the flashbacks, and the non-anamorphic transfer was sourced from a pretty beat-up, blown-out print.

BCI’s 2006 3-film Sonny Chiba Action Pack substituted an uncut transfer of Kinji Fukasaku-directed Virus in place of The Executioner. The Bullet Train anamorphic transfer is noticeably less affected from a high contrast print, and also features just the English dub track, but the film is uncut, running 152 mins.

TT’s Blu sports a fine transfer from a superior print with stable colours and none of the hot white levels that affected prior DVD releases. Although it lacks an English dub track, the original Japanese audio comes with excellent English subs.

The newly commissioned director interview is also subtitled, and adds important details to the film’s production. Besides covering writing, casting, set design, and the film’s release, towards the end of the featurette director Satô laments the changes in Japan’s current cinema, in which the advances in digital technology haven’t been able to support a prolific native industry; he opines that without the aide of a hefty TV station, getting a substantive film made is much tougher today than when Bullet Train was conceived.

Satô’s career harkens back to the country’s New Wave (of which Virus director Fukasaku was a key figure), and among his last films is Yamato (2005), a drama in which a woman attempts to find the final resting place of the legendary battleship, and further details of its crew and final voyage.

Perhaps the most important aspect of this release is restoring Ken Takakura’s place as the film’s star, as evident in the original campaign art. Previous U.S. releases hyped Sonny Chiba’s contribution because of his newfound fame after the release of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill diptych, but Takakura, dubbed Japan’s Robert Mitchum by film historian Julie Kirgo in her essay, was both Bullet Train‘s star and the anchor that transformed a high-concept disaster film into an unsubtle critique of Japan’s whirlwind postwar economic success, and a drama where the sympathies gravitate and remain locked on the bomber.



© 2016 Mark R. Hasan



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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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