Disaffected small business owner Tetsuo (Takakura) throws his lot in with a couple of left-wing extremists to plant a bomb on a superfast bullet train travelling between Hiroshima and Tokyo. The bomb is programmed to detonate if the train’s speed drops below 80 kilometres per hour.
Onboard the train, driver Aoki (Chiba) sweats a lot in his seat before ultimately cutting the necessary wires. Aoki is in radio contact with the railway company HQ, where senior executives work out how to re-route the train to avoid collisions and slowdowns. The execs are in contact with the police who are busy identifying and tracking down the bombers.
Nothing feels nail-biting here and the on-board characters are neither developed nor differentiated enough from each other. For a film that takes itself so seriously, there’s a laughably unrealistic birth scene on the train that aims for extremity but falls far short.
Takakura steals the show with his display of moody disgruntlement and brooding, practical action. He is certainly more sympathetic to watch than the railway company’s ‘salary men’ in grey suits with their concern for organisational hierarchy. Sonny Chiba plays his small part rather badly.
Takakura, well known for his brooding presence in western films like The Yakuza and Black Rain, is extremely saturnine and engaging here. Tetsuo is the only character given a back story so I think it is safe to call this film his story. It is told in a mix of flashback and forward development. But he doesn’t just act and remember. He is given on-screen time to mourn fallen co-conspirators in long, silent sequences. It is all very surprising, given that the terrorist group Japanese Red Army was is full operative mode abroad at the time.
The plot supposedly inspired the 80’s Hollywood hit Speed, but the ending here has an epic Heat-like quality. Apparently, the film negative for the elegiac final sequence was damaged during its chemical development. Director Sato decided to keep it as it was because the whiteout effect looked cool.