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    The Takakura Express

    Posted by Mike Finnegan on

    Today marks two years since the death at age 83 of a true icon of international action cinema, Japan’s Ken Takakura, an actor revered in his homeland over a 50+-year career for his tough-guy stoicism, alert and expressively wary eyes and slow-burn virility. He is the subject of a new documentary, actor/director Yuichi Hibi’s Ken San, which screened at this year’s Cannes and Shanghai International Film Festivals. Along with extensive film clips, the film includes admiring reminiscences from long-time colleagues as well as The Yakuza screenwriter Paul Schrader, Black Rain collaborators Michael Douglas and cinematographer Jan de Bont, directors John Woo, Yôji Yamada and Martin Scorsese. Reporting on the long-gestating movie tribute, Alex DeLeon at Filmfestivals.com writes that Takakura “combined the charisma and power of a John Wayne with the sensibility of a Montgomery Clift. It is very much to director Yuichi Hibi's credit that he captured all of this in this 100-minute biographical masterpiece.” While we await the possibility of Ken San reaching our shores, Twilight Time fans can anticipate the imminent hi-def arrival of The Bullet Train, starring Takakura as a smart and calculating terrorist, originally planned for a fall release but which will now reliably roll down the track for delivery this December. Herewith is a reprise of the preview piece that originally ran in September.

    High-speed rail transit proved a miraculous boon for Japan when the Tōkaidō Shinkansen inaugurated its service in October 1964, just prior to the start of the Tokyo Olympics. The speed with which now-feasible day-trips across the breadth of the country in aerodynamically designed locomotives, dubbed “bullet trains” for their sleek appearance, hugely affected the speed of commerce and had a beneficially bonding impact on nation’s culture. American movies have also wielded considerable influence on global entertainment, so when the lucrative popularity of early 1970s disaster thrillers portraying the manmade and natural perils of distressed passenger jets (Airport, Skyjacked), capsized ships (The Poseidon Adventure), sleek skyscrapers (The Towering Inferno), toppled infrastructure (Earthquake) and commandeered transit (The Taking of Pelham 123) struck a chord with audiences, Japan’s Toei Company boarded the disaster movie express big-time with The Bullet Train aka Shinkansen Daibakuha (1975). Director Junya Satô packs a lot into its 152-minute runtime: politically inspired terrorism, manhunt melodramatics, intriguing backstories for some of its criminal cohorts and beleaguered bureaucrats, passenger pandemonium and the requisite blinkings and whirrings of computerized control system nerve centers and the everyday heroes who monitor them. Two major stars of Japanese cinema added marquee fuel. Ken Takakura, the broodingly charismatic star who would first come to the attention of American audiences that same year alongside Robert Mitchum in director Sydney Pollack’s The Yakuza and 14 years later partnering Michael Douglas in director Ridley Scott’s Black Rain, plays the bankrupted businessman/militant leader of a trio of disillusioned dissidents who plant a bomb on the Hikari 109 express from Tokyo to Hakata that will detonate if the locomotive’s speed drops below 80 MPH. Seeking revenge against the corrupt bureaucracy that ruined him and his family, he demands a $5 million ransom in exchange for instructions to disarm it – and shows he means business when word comes in of a freight train explosion he engineered. At the train controls is Street Fighter film series icon and martial arts legend Shin’ichi “Sonny” Chiba, struggling to keep Hikari 109 up to speed and its potentially explosive passengers and crew from going off the rails. Cross-cutting between the growing panic among the train’s 1,500 passengers (including a pregnant woman going into labor and an overwrought businessman threatening to unlock a sealed hatch), the media’s sensationalistic coverage of the emergency, the command center and the desperate police measures across city streets and country landscapes to deliver the ransom and hunt the conspirators, The Bullet Train easily ratchets up as much suspense as kilometers. (Indeed, it’s widely acknowledged as a prototype for director Jan de Bont’s Los Angeles-set bomb-laden bus excursion Speed (1994) starring Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock and Dennis Hopper.) But the internationally distributed theatrical version, which excised more than 30 minutes of compelling backstory and gripping sequences of tension among the traumatized passengers, didn’t click with North American audiences and received sparse exposure here. Utilizing a recent Toei Studios remastering of the complete Japanese original, TT’s hi-def Blu-ray of The Bullet Train not only packs all the excitement its creators intended but also includes a new interview with director Satô, whose warrior epic The Silk Road (1988) brought him global renown and the Japanese Film Academy Award as Best Director. Purchase your ticket for a truly electrifying ride set to embark December 13. Preorders open November 30.