Movie review: Bullet Train (a surprising connection to Japanese literature)

By | February 20, 2023

I’ve had a special interest in Japanese culture for almost as long as I can remember, and can often appreciate books, movies, or TV series that try to highlight some interesting, unique, or significant part of Japan’s culture. But I’ve developed a good sense of which of these have an authentic feel and intent, and which are simply trying to take advantage of Japan to make money.

I stumbled upon “Bullet Train”, a 2022 action film starring Brad Pitt, on Netflix the other day and decided to have a watch. I had seen an ad for it on a TV a few months ago, but I didn’t know much about the movie.

It’s about a handful of assassins who end up on the same bullet train together, and features many well-scripted action scenes, ample gore, and above all a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor that often makes fun of itself. Having recently skimmed a handful of low(er) budget movies on Netflix, I was blown away by the high production value of “Bullet Train”, including everything from the camera work, music, acting, and natural-looking CG.

Because of the flippant attitude of this movie (as especially seen in Brad Pitt’s character), it is hard to enjoy in a serious way, but it’s one of the most entertaining action films I’ve seen in the last few years. It helped that several parts reminded me of Fight Club, one of my favorite movies.

Furthermore, this is one of those movies that depicts Japan in a very authentic way, from the speech of several of the characters to the locations, and even nice little touches like showing character’s names in Katakana when they first appear, in a manga-like style. But it was only when I decided to do some research on the movie (this was before I finished it) when I discovered it was based on a novel by Isaka Kotaro, a great Japanese author whose books I have read several of, and even posted reviews of on this blog.

While I am sure some (many?) key areas of the book were changed to more suit the movie media, I could definitely see Isaka’s characteristic quirky style showing through. This movie is most certainly one of the best, most high-budget movies I have seen that is based on a modern Japanese novel. And I may check out the original book in Japanese (I see there is an English version too).

There isn’t enough Japanese for me to recommend this for learning purposes, but you do get to see some beautiful scenes of Japan (one flyby of the train with a full moon in the background was especially stunning). It’s a movie that tries to sell Japan as being cool, and does a wonderful job.

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