It was Japan's Oscar submission in the category of Best Foreign Language Film of 1999. It didn't get through to the shortlist, but it's still gentle, moving and somehow both sad and happy. Not to be confused with Densha Otoko (Train Man) which is a completely different Japanese hit from 2005.
It's a story about a man (Ken Takakura) who lives for his job. He's a railroad man, a Poppoya, and for him that's the most important thing in the world. His father, whom he hero-worshipped, said that railways would rebuild Japan after the war. When his wife died, he wasn't with her because he was on duty. "Come to the hospital." "If someone replaces me." They won't, of course. He's the stationmaster and there's no one else for miles. Similarly he's not there when their baby daughter dies.
If this were an English-language film, you'd be calling Takakura a bastard.
However this is deeply Japanese. A common theme in Japanese cinema and literature is tragic protagonists who do their duty, no matter how painful. You could thus call this old-fashioned. I've even seen it called a right-wing film, harking back to the bad old days of oppressively traditional values. (Note: "left-wing" and "right-wing" in Japan aren't used to refer to economic theory or social liberalism, but instead nationalism and love of the emperor.) I think this is a slightly silly argument, but it has to be admitted that this film is based on a Jiro Asada story and he sounds fairly right-wing to me. He joined the Japan Self-Defence Forces because he was following the example of a total nutter, Yukio Mishima. This is a guy who believed in the samurai code, tried to launch a coup d'etat and then committed seppuku. In 1970. I ask you. Mind you, Mishima also happened to be a major writer who got nominated three times for a Nobel Prize in Literature.
However none of that matters here. This movie is deep, human and tackling themes far richer than "I am an eager slave, I will work until I drop" or other similarly trite nonsense.
A powerful theme is that of the obsolescence of getting old and left behind. Takakura is the stationmaster in a tiny town that's dying. Population: 200, almost all old. It used to be a boom town when the coal mines were open, but that was long ago. (We also get flashbacks to 1970s strikes and communist-affiliated unions.) Today the young people are leaving. There's no work. A restaurant will have no customers two evenings in three. The railway has been running at a loss for years and now it's going to close down... but Takakura refuses to look for other work. He's incapable of even entertaining the notion. He's a railroad man and that's the end of it. The trains must run. He's been keeping this town connected to the outside world for all his working life, even at the cost of not being with his wife and his daughter when they died.
Takakura's friends are trying to help him. He refuses to be helped.
You'd expect all this to be gruelling. You wouldn't wish Takakura's tragedies on your worst enemy, he has no future and he's pushing away any attempt to give him one. However, as I said earlier, this film is also happy. It's lovely, in fact. Much of it's in flashback, indicated visually by being in black-and-white with touches of computer colouring. We see his life. This includes the tragedies, obviously, but also the happy times. Takakura's a good man. Everyone here is. Small girls visit the railway station to collect a doll from the lost property office and with them, Takakura's like the grandfather you wish you had. You can see how much it must have cost him to stay away from those hospitals, because he's a sweet, sentimental old buffer underneath that crusty exterior.
He's not miserable. Instead he's good-natured and a friend to everyone. There's even an ex-colleague with whom he gets gay subtext. If you're looking for homoerotic tension between old age pensioners, this is for you. Look at the scene where they're in a drunken clinch on the floor together and saying "always be near me", for instance, or else hugging and saying "I'm waiting for your answer". Admittedly I think they were both married with children, but note that it took Takakura seventeen years to father a child, with his wife blaming herself and believing that Takakura was blaming her too.
There's a lot of love in this film, but just as important is the generation gap. In a way, Takakura represents Japan. They have the world's most famous demographic crisis, with insufficient babies being born and entire cities turning grey much as we're seeing here. The young are deserting the countryside. That's what's being portrayed here, with a merciless lack of sentiment, and it gives enormous weight and meaning to Takakura's combination of gentle acceptance and suicidal pig-headedness. "This town is an old folks' home. I'll be right at home." However at the same time he loves young people and he does his best to give them good futures even as his own is heading at top speed towards a brick wall.
The cast is strong. Obviously you'd expect elderly actors to be outstanding. They are. Takakura has also acted in English-speaking films (e.g. Black Rain opposite Michael Douglas), while also here is Ken Shimura of my wife's favourite comedy group, The Drifters.
Jiro Asada is apparently famous for making his readers cry. Based on this film, I can believe it. You'll see why it was chosen as Japan's submission for the Oscars, although equally it perhaps doesn't come across as quite special enough to take the top prize. They find an ending that's right and true, for instance, but they don't find an ending that's brilliant. It's emotional, obviously. It goes magical realist towards the end. It's paradoxically happy, not to mention moving, sweet and uplifting. Recommended, obviously.
"I can't bend. Not at my age."