Director: Jun’ya Satô
Screenplay: Ryûnosuke Ono, Jun’ya Satô
Based on a Story by: Sunao Sakagami (as Arei Katô)
Starring: Ken Takakura, Shin’ichi Chiba, Kei Yamamoto, Eiji Gô, Akira Oda, Raita Ryû
Country: Japan
Running Time: 152 min (Japanese theatrical), 115 min (international version)
Year: 1975
BBFC Certificate: PG

Back in the mid-70s, in amongst their prolific output of violent Yakuza films following the great success of Battles Without Honour and Humanity, Toei wanted to make a film to stand up against the popular Hollywood productions of the time. The US was inundated with disaster movies back then, so the idea was to emulate these. With the Shinkansen (‘bullet train’) rail network being expanded in 1975, Toei thought that might make a good setting/gambit for a Japanese spin on the disaster movie formula and so the seeds were sown for The Bullet Train (known as Shinkansen daibakuha in Japan, which roughly translates as ‘Bullet Train Big Explosion’).

Jun’ya Satô was assigned to direct as well as write, alongside Ryûnosuke Ono. The pair were sent to a resort for a month to churn out a script. They wanted to have a bomb on the train that needed defusing but they ran into a problem. The real-life bullet trains were built with a fail-safe that caused them to slow down if anything went wrong.

The answer was simple and brought forth a concept that would later be used for the popular 90s action classic, Speed. The bomb would be triggered by the train slowing down below 80 km/h. This would keep the excitement levels high, on top of the tension of trying to defuse the bomb.

The Bullet Train was released within a month of The Towering Inferno in Japan but nevertheless proved to be a big hit. Toei felt the film could work overseas too, so it was shipped out to cinemas across the world (in a severely truncated version – one of which lost a whole hour). Whilst only moderately successful in most territories, it was particularly successful in France, possibly due to excitement building for the impending launch of the TGV trains over there. After this, the film was re-released in Japan and, once again, proved popular.

The Bullet Train is now being released on Blu-ray in the UK by Eureka, with both the full-length Japanese and truncated international versions of the film on the disc. I got hold of a copy and my thoughts follow.

Ken Takakura plays Tetsuo Okita, the down-on-his-luck former business owner who plans the terrorist operation to put a bomb on the train. He believes it can be done cleanly and easily, avoiding any bloodshed and gaining him and his cohorts a large sum of money to make up for the dire straits they’ve found themselves in.

Whilst the police, led by railway security head Miyashita (Fumio Watanabe), attempt to find the culprits behind the bombing, Shinkansen director Kuramochi (Utsui Ken) and train driver Aoki (Shin’ichi ‘Sonny’ Chiba) do their best to save the lives of the passengers on board the train.

I enjoyed The Bullet Train a great deal. It’s a finely-honed crowd-pleaser that Satô directs with great skill. Yes, it uses a lot of classic disaster movie tropes (particularly its motley crew of passengers, including a pregnant woman who goes into labour on board) and a couple of scenes are rather silly, most notably when a judo team happen to be jogging near one of the bad guys and are swiftly called upon to help stop him! However, Satô keeps things moving at quite a pace, never allowing the audience to get bored, despite the lengthy running time. I would say that perhaps some of the many character strands could have been trimmed back though to make for an even leaner experience (making an argument for the shorter, international cut, though that loses aspects I did like – see below).

I also appreciated the fact that the film focuses a great deal on the bombers, particularly Okita. He and his two accomplices, Masaru Koga (Kei Yamamoto) and Hiroshi Ōshiro (Akira Oda) are all given backstories and reasons for taking such drastic action. What they do isn’t right, by any means, but at least we can understand their reasoning and their desire to get the money without anyone being hurt is admirable at least. The international cut loses a lot of this, making for a more conventional approach.

The film is also interesting in how it subtly says quite a lot about Japan at the time by centring around the ‘economic miracle’ through the titular feat of engineering. This is then countered by showing the problems this expansion brought to the ones left behind, through the troubles Okita faced that led him to his act of terrorism. There are also aspects of the plot that touch upon the leftwing political activism that was prevalent not long before. In fact, the film’s story was inspired by a series of bombings by eco-terrorists in the 70s.

The Bullet Train also benefits from a starry cast, with some big names both in major roles and cameo appearances. The great Ken Takakura had a long and successful career, including roles in Hollywood as well as Japan, and he’s his usual smouldering self, which is no bad thing. Chiba is unusually cast here as the train driver, a long shout from his karate-fighting roles that he’s famous for. He does a good job though, constantly sweaty and on-edge, helping ramp up the tension when the action shifts onto the train itself. Utsui Ken is particularly good too, as the troubled train network head.

As with most Japanese films of the period, The Bullet Train is nicely shot, with great use made of the wide frame, on top of the odd creative angle or use of depth. The final shot (or second-to-final, to be pedantic) is particularly striking, though its unusual style was actually accidental. The high-speed camera used for the sequence malfunctioned and over-exposed the footage but the shot was kept as it looked cool.

Japanese National Railways refused to support the film, so the filmmakers mix ‘stolen’ shots of the actual trains with model shots in the action scenes. The models are pretty obvious but it’s not badly done, all things considered. A sequence where a freight train blows up early on in the film looks particularly good.

The score is also effective, with an often-funky, jazz-inflected style that played very much to my tastes.

Overall then, whilst Bullet Train might be a little overstuffed, with a couple of particularly daft sequences that could have been left out, it remains an endlessly exciting yarn that keeps you hooked throughout its considerable running time.


Bullet Train is out on 24th April on Blu-Ray in the UK, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema series. The film looks fantastic, with a clear and detailed picture. It sounds solid too, in both the Japanese and international versions.

– Limited Edition slipcase featuring new artwork by Tony Stella [2000 copies]
– 1080p presentation on Blu-ray from a 2K restoration of the original film elements
– Original Japanese theatrical version and alternate dubbed International version included
– Optional English subtitles
– Brand new audio commentary by Jasper Sharp and Tom Mes
– Brand new interview with author / critic Kim Newman
– Brand new interview with Tony Rayns
– Off the Rails: Jun’ya Satô’s biographers on the making of The Bullet Train – Brand new interview with film writer Tatsuya Masuto and film critic Masaaki Nomura
– “Big Movie, Big Panic: Junya Sato on The Bullet Train” archival featurette
– Trailers
– A limited edition collectors booklet featuring a new essay by film writer Barry Forshaw [2000 copies]

The Japanese cinema ‘dream team’ of Tom Mes and Jasper Sharp provide a deep dive into the film, discussing everything from the cast and crew, to the political situation in Japan at the time, to the film’s themes. It’s a wonderful track that remains engaging throughout the two-and-a-half-hour running time.

Tony Rayns provides a fairly thorough look at the cast, crew and cinematic and political scenes of Japan at the time. It’s a typically well-researched and interesting piece that is a valuable alternative to the commentary, if you don’t have the time or patience for that.

Kim Newman takes us on an enjoyable tour of the history of the ‘mad bomber’ film. It’s a fun listen that reminds you how old and varied the genre actually is.

The interview with Jun’ya Satô’s biographers gives a solid overview of the film’s inception, production and legacy, covering plenty of bases.

I watched the interview with Satô last, which turned out to be a mistake as clearly a lot of the other contributors here had taken anecdotes from this archive piece. Everyone has something extra to add though and the director’s inclusion here is still more than welcome, as it’s best to hear such tales straight from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.

The booklet has Barry Forshaw provide an essay that’s broken into several sections, opening with an overview of the production before looking at the lead players, studio and director, individually. It’s a strong coverall addition to the set.

Overall then, you have a handful of the best experts in the field of Japanese and genre cinema each providing some illuminating content, on top of a couple of strong pieces from first-hand (or near-first-hand in one case) sources. As such, it’s a well-stocked package for a solid action-thriller. An easy recommendation.


The Bullet Train - Eureka
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Editor of films and videos as well as of this site. On top of his passion for film, he also has a great love for music and his family.

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