Japanese Title: 苦役 列車
Romaji: Kueki Ressha
Release Date: July 14th, 2012
Running Time: 114 mins.
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Writer: Shinji Imaoka (Screenplay), Kenta Nishimura (Original Work)
Starring: Mirai Moriyama, Kengo Kora, Atsuko Maeda, Makita Sports, Tomorowo Taguchi, Mamiko Ito, Miwako Wagatsuma, Shohei Uno, Hiroshi Sato, Asuka Ishii, Kouji Tsujimoto
“Come in. Take a peek. Big boobs. Lots of nice girls here.”
The film starts in a grimy trash strewn back street. We are looking at a club named Peep Show Locker Room and the doorman for the club shouts out what is on offer. Out of the club saunters Kanta Kitamichi (Moriyama), who grimaces and lights a cigarette. Freeze frame, a voice over accompanied by on-screen text introduces us to Kitamichi, his father committed a sex crime that tore up his family in 5th grade. He has worked as a day labourer since graduating junior high. His only hobby is reading books.
It isn’t the most promising introduction to a main character, an aimless young man in 80’s Japan, the age of wealth and opportunity, and as we watch the film his behaviour is pretty awful.
Kanta is all rough edges and his social skills are zero. Something of a hard luck kid whose negative attitude makes all the hard luck, he is bad-mannered, loud and deceitful, prone to blowing his hard-earned money on peep shows and on getting drunk and vomiting his guts out in alleys. Physically thin but sturdy, he ambles around in a slouch with a permanent grimace etched on his face as if ready for the next blow life will give him. Despite this bad image, he has good points. He is loyal to his friends, street smart, proud of being a Tokyoite and Kanta can’t be that bad because he loves reading and literature redeems all… but he is still one of those guys you keep at an arms distance because they are more trouble than they are worth.
This unflattering character is surprisingly based on an autobiographical novel by Kenta Nishimura which won the Akutagawa Prize and, if you get past the bad behaviour of Kanta, you find a character you come to li… well, maybe not like but come to appreciate.
Some people do come to like Kanta. The nice guy Shoji (Kora), a fellow warehouseman, who is attending a vocational school and working hard to advance his position in life. The two are odd companions what with the difference in outlook and behaviour but they become firm friends as Kanta takes Shoji under his wing and shows him the less salubrious side of Tokyo. There is also the lovely Yasuko (Maeda), a university student who works in a bookstore and likes the same writer as Kanta, Seishi Yokomizo, and offers hope that Kanta can get a girlfriend for sex instead of visiting peep shows. As well as meeting these two people who like him, he finds that his hard work is rewarded with promotion at work. Will Kanta finally get off the drudgery train and find happiness?
Director Nobuhiro Yamashita and writer Shinji Imaoka have crafted an excellent character-based film. A drama where we follow an unlikely and unlikeable hero on a journey, not of self-discovery, but of bloody-minded determination to live and resilience as he encounters a coterie of people who may offer him friendship and help and lift him out of his miserable existence of peep shows, alcohol and manual labour.
Imaoka’s script makes little effort to varnish over Kanta’s problems and it is his detailing of them and characters responses that make this rewarding.
Characterisation is deep and sharp and we see all of the bad points. It is not contrived but carefully built, painfully realistic and rather cringe-worthy. Kanta’s anxieties create situations where his reflex negativity sinks his efforts and desire to fit in. Kanta is socially inept and downright rude when dealing with people (especially normal girls – sex, sex, sex). His problems are linked to a fatalistic attitude stemming from the social stigma of his father’s sex crime and his shame over his lack of education. We hang on with the character because we sympathise with him, because we know his secret shame and we see the possibility of redemption through his love of books and his new friends.
That written, this is not a typical redemptive story where everyone wills the loser to change their life and there is positive music swelling at every life-lesson learned. Kanta tends to ruin things. What makes this work even more is that people react to Kanta in believable ways and we totally understand why people react to him the way they do because all of the other characters are well-written. His behaviour wears them down their good-will rather than chases them off. They remain polite but soon they blank him so as to carry on with their lives. It is recognisable because it happens in real life.
On top of realistic characters, Yamashita captures the huge divide of 80’s Japan. The flop-houses and seedy streets that Kanta inhabits have a pungent air of desperation, grime and misanthropy. The peep-shows are scummy, the rented accommodation stifling and the alleys filthy. Meanwhile the brief glimpses of posh restaurants and student accommodation show the safe, upwardly mobile and hopeful lives of Yasuko and Shoji and the opportunities that Kanta could squander. The end is no surprise but when it comes, is both the nadir and zenith of Kanta’s existence, a surreal and rewarding one where we are glad we stuck out watching a main character who is a very unlikely hero.