No, this Bullet Train is not the fabulous 2022 action film starring Brad Pitt about a bunch of assassins with different agendas on board a Japanese bullet train, but rather the 1975 Japanese disaster thriller which was itself a big influence on the 1994 film Speed with Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock that included a scenery chewing performance from Dennis Hopper as the villain. Having said that, of course there are many comparisons that can also be made with the 2022 film, along with a host of other films including firstly The Burning Train, a 1980 Indian film that has similar elements, as well as the excellent 1985 film, The Runaway Train starring Jon Voight. In 2012, another Indian film, Tezz was more directly adapted from The Bullet Train, and by that count, also Speed. The 1975 film though was directed by Jun’ya Sato, a director more associated on his home turf with yakuza action films, but was able to hone his talents well here very much after the style of the American disaster film and is now available through Eureka Entertainment on blu-ray in a superb package. It is clear that the aim of this genre film is to make inroads into international Western cinema screens, though this was not entirely successful from a box office or distribution perspective. Throughout that decade, bombs on trains, boats and planes, as well as buildings and even rollercoasters were prevalent in such ’70s films as the Airport films, Avalanche Express (1978), Juggernaut (1974), Rollercoaster and Black Sunday (both 1977) and was a theme picked up again in the 1990s with broader action films starring the likes of Denzel Washinton or Steven Seagal, that also, like the 1970s, picked up on natural disasters, as well as the aforementioned loons with bombs. 9/11 of course became a game changer and took the maniacs with bombs on transport to a different level.
In this sense, to a modern audience the plot of Bullet Train might seem a rather overly familiar one and one handled on multiple occasions in the 1970s. As such, the plot centres on a gang of anarchists who plant bombs on trains to get their abstract political point across and demand a ransom in the process or they’ll blow the train up. Early on in the film the anarchists demonstrate this when a freight train is blown up to give us some action as well as the suspense throughout the rest of the film and giving the audience more than shrieking passengers and drivers with sweaty brows. The main showcase bomb we are told is sequestered on board a high speed bullet train Hikari No. 109 travelling from Tokyo to Hakata which would take about six hours with some 1500 passengers on board. There is an added catch – the train can’t drop slower than 80kmh otherwise the onboard bomb will explode. Sound familiar? The plot might have seemed a little corny, even in the 1970s, but the added element of a speed limit added to the suspense and was clearly enough to be a big influence on Jan de Bont’s Speed (in spite of de Bont’s denials).
Although it is quite a long film at two and a half hours, it does move at a good pace and is quite watchable sustaining the suspense well, despite a couple of lulls. It also goes into some detail on the political ramifications of the attack on the train company and the media as well as the backgrounds of the terrorists and the police. One of the key characters is is the company man who does not like the way the company is repsonding to the crisis and ultimately resigns, and as such is perhaps one of the most heroic characters in the film who has nothing to do with the disposal of the bomb. Another clear inspiration or reference point to this characer is The Taking of Pelham 123 (1974) about terrorists who take over a subway train with the point of view from the subway control room played by Walter Matthau. All of this despite both Sato and production company Toei usually focussed mostly on yakuza films and what Rayns’ identifies as being quite a macho company in the type of films they made. Highlighting this is through the biggest name in the film in Sonny Chiba, one of Japanese cinema’s biggest stars of the 1970s and the nation’s rival to Bruce Lee. Another lead name is Ken Takakura who plays the terrorist who, unlike Hopper in Speed, infuses his character with a good deal of sympathy and personal conflict.
Film historian Kim Newman, more familiar with classic and exploitation horror fans as a cultural film historian gives a talk about the history of anarchists and terrorists in films with the starting point being the late 19th century anarchist movement and how this embedded itself into popular culture starting with the Joseph Conrad novel, ‘The Secret Agent’ which became the basis of Alfred Hitchcock’s British film, Sabotage (1936). Hitchcock’s film has a strong sense of suspense including a child blown up on a bus. Newman also goes back to the sweaty foreheads of those attempting to difuse a bomb and the red wire or blue wire anxiety of many a similar film. Interestingly he leaves out such James Bond films as Goldfinger (1964), The Man With the Golden Gun (1974) or Octopussy (1983) with the bomb countdown and wire cutting forming the climax to many a Bond film. The extras are perfect good all round talking points with not only Newman, but also Asian cinema expert Tony Rayns who goes into some depth about the making of Bullet Train and director Sato as well as a lengthy interview with Sato himself. Rayns also gives some good detailed info on the bullet train network of the Shinkansen trains and references some early efforts of terrorism in early ’70s Japan.
This is a fun film, though while it was not a break through genre film for Japan, unlike the nation’s arthouse films or the then still enduring popularity of Akira Kurosawa, though it is wonderful that Eureka Entertainment have released this detail in their continuing coverage of Japanese and Asian films on restored high quality discs.