Scarcely a week seems to go by without the news carrying a story about the HS2 project. Having first been mooted back in 2010, with the first phase originally being planned to open in 2026, the scheme has been marred by dither, delay, rising costs, and the shifting of political sands, meaning the whole line – if it ever gets built in its entirety – will not be complete until some time into the 2040s.
Consider, then, the series of dedicated high speed lines that are already in place across much of Europe, as well as many other overseas territories. The very first of these – Japan’s Tokaido Shinkansen – made its debut in 1964, with newly-built trains which could reach speeds of up to 130mph. With the UK only seeing the end of steam locomotives in use for passenger services in August 1968, the Shinkansen network had already racked up some 100 million passenger journeys by the July of the previous year.
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Britain’s railways, it seems, have quite a long way yet to go in order to catch up with the rest of the world, and in particular Japan, as the progenitor of the modern high speed rail age. A Series O Shinkansen train – in use from introduction in 1964 until retirement in 2000 – can be found on display in York’s National Railway Museum, a salutary reminder of how all of our high speed rail ambitions seem to have been shunted off into a siding. Yes, an original ‘Bullet Train’ is a museum piece decades before ours have even been built.
One of these Shinkansen trains is the setting for 1975’s Toei Company suspense thriller The Bullet Train, co-written and directed by Junya Satō. A bomb has been placed aboard the Hikari 109 service from Tokyo to Hakata, which is armed as the train hits 80kph, and will detonate if it drops below that speed. Kuramochi (Ken Utsui), the Shinkansen controller, is tasked with keeping the train running while efforts are made to locate both the bomb and bomber (Ken Takakura) before time runs out, Hikari 109’s conductor (Sonny Chiba) having the responsibility for not letting the train’s speed drop in the meantime, with 1,500 souls on board.
If certain elements of the plot sound familiar, then you may well be thinking of Jan de Bont’s 1994 action movie Speed. Instead of Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock, here we have Shinichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba – probably best known for starring in The Street Fighter Trilogy (released on Blu-ray this month by Arrow Video) – in an atypical role, as a far more passive, helpless figure than his far more familiar martial arts warrior persona, trapped behind the controls of the Hikari 109 train, as it hurtles towards an uncertain fate. The antagonist here is played by Ken Takakura, probably best known to Western audiences for appearing in Ridley Scott’s Black Rain.
Takakura’s character – Tetsuo Okita – is not a typical, one-dimensional ‘mad bomber’ stereotype you might expect in a Hollywood production (although much of his motivations in placing a bomb on the train are, frustratingly, edited out for the truncated, dubbed overseas version also included on the Blu-ray). Here, we see a conflict between the modernity and corporatisation of post-war Japan – represented here by the Shinkansen – with those smaller businesses and individuals being swept away in this new order, Takakura’s Okita being a victim of this cultural and societal shift.
Clocking in at more than two-and-a-half hours, The Bullet Train is rather a lengthy picture, something uncommon for Japanese cinema of the time, and Satō spends great swaths of the film away from the predicament aboard the train to the cat-and-mouse game with the authorities desperately hunting the bomber and his associates. For certain parts of the film’s action, model work had to be used to achieve the desired results, although the end results do seem vaguely – and unintentionally – reminiscent of the scaled down peril seen in Gerry Anderson’s oeuvre.
Eureka Entertainment’s new Blu-ray release of The Bullet Train has a 2K restoration of the original film elements as its centrepiece, looking as clear and as sharp as you could ever hope for from a feature which is not far off five decades old. The main feature also has a commentary by Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes, the co-authors of The Midnight Eye Guide to New Japanese Film. As mentioned earlier, the release also has the shorter, dubbed version of The Bullet Train for foreign audiences, which – although undoubtedly pacier – has the unfortunate side effect of reducing the bomber and cohorts to rather generic baddies.
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As for the other extras, these comprise a rather impressive package, with ever-reliable and entertaining Kim Newman giving us an overview of the ‘mad bomber’ genre. Alongside this is a featurette with writer Tony Rayns offering valuable context for the movie’s place in Japanese cinema, as well as giving an insight into their society at the time. Junya Satō’s biographers – Tatsuya Masuto and Masaaki Nomura – talk in some detail all about the production of The Bullet Train, and Satō himself – who passed away in 2019 – is represented by an archival interview. The first 2,000 copies will also have a booklet with an essay by film writer Barry Forshaw.
The Bullet Train stands up remarkably well against not only the then-contemporary Hollywood features, but also more modern blockbusters, and this is a fascinating opportunity to see the green shoots of what became Speed two decades later. It also fares far better than its execrable recent near-namesake, starring the ex-Mr. Angelina Jolie, which was more of a creative than literal disaster movie. For high speed thrills, The Bullet Train is a First Class ticket all the way.
The Bullet Train is out now on Blu-ray from Eureka Entertainment.