The Drudgery Train (Kueki ressha)
Japan (2012) Dir. Nobuhiro Yamashita
Set in 1988, Kanta Kitamachi (Mirai Moriyama) hasn’t had the best starts in life, being hounded out of school after his father was exposed as a sex offender. Now aged nineteen, Kanta works as a labourer and even though he enjoys reading, he spends his spare time at brothels and bars, while adoring bookshop clerk Yasuko Sakurai (Atsuko Maeda) from afar. Things change when he strikes up a friendship with a new recruit to the factory, the highly educated Shoji Kusakabe (Kengo Kôra) and it is through Shoji that Kanta finally gets to talk to Yasuko. Just as things start to turnaround for Kanta, old habits and simple jealousies rear their ugly head to ruin everything.
Based on the novel by Kenta Nishimura The Drudgery Train sees director Nobuhiro Yamashita, who gave us the wonderful Linda Linda Linda, once again turn his hand to a slice-of-life drama concerning Japan’s disenfranchised youth in his unique droll and wryly observed style. While there are a few wicked laughs to be had here this is a fairly sombre affair that offers a subversively different take on the zero to hero journey. There are some quirky touches to kick things off but the realism of Kanta’s plight makes for some occasionally bleak but arresting viewing.
A product of the scandal that saw his family ostracised, Kanta’s social skills leave a lot to be desired yet having to suffer such a public indignity at an early age has left the lad with a huge chip on his shoulder. Kanta has already decided he is a no hoper due to his lack of education, and has settled into a life of beer and prostitutes while avoiding to pay the overdue rent on his tiny apartment. Dreams and good things only happen to other people as far as Kanta is concerned.
Despite being diametrically opposed Kanta and Shoji compliment each other with Shoji representing a bright light in Kanta’s otherwise gloomy existence and things start to turn a corner for him. His stock at work even begins to rise, resulting in full time employment, a pay rise and greater responsibilities and thanks to Shoji, he has made contact with Yasuko, with whom he shares a love of the same author.
However like all dream scenarios this one doesn’t last and just when things are looking good, Kanta manages to mess it up by trying to go too far with Yasuko, who already has a boyfriend, then falls out with Shoji when he too finds a girlfriend of his own, reducing the amount of time he can spend with Kanta. As everyone else’s lives are improving and his stagnates before descending back into hopelessness, Kanta hits the self destruction button but along the way makes some startling discoveries – including meeting an ex-girlfriend Sumiyo (Mamiko Ito) in the least expected place – that sows the seeds for a change of outlook on his life.
A subtle concurrently running subplot follows an older work colleague of Kanta’s, Iwao Takahashi (Makita Sports) whose struggles parallel Kanta’s. Takahashi spends his free time collecting mussels from the river bank to give to his wife until scolded by a senior colleague. He also rebukes Kanta and Shoji for not having dreams, revealing his own to be a singer which receives the same scoffs that he affords Kanta’s idea of wanting to write after being struck off from work following an accident.
Perhaps by design, Kanta is not a particularly likeable character from the onset so supporting him isn’t so easy, yet his dogged determination to get through the day without wanting to top himself is somehow admirable. Thanks to Mirai Moriyama’s committed performance, there is an inexplicable magnetism to both Kanta and his discordant journey through life that makes the audience want to stay the course. In support, Kengo Kôra is comparatively bland as Shoji, basically being the nice polite guy to Kanta’s rough and ready miscreant, although he treats his character with equal importance, aware of how Shoji fits in with Kanta’s journey.
For many, the casting of Atsuko Maeda will be of some interest. As a former member of the girl group monster that is AKB-48, Maeda has a lot to prove as the latest ex-music star to switch careers. Prim and proper Yasuko wears unflattering jumpers, ankle length granny skirts, no make-up and speaks quietly – a far cry from Maeda’s previous role as glam pop idol/teen temptress but it at least it shows willing to break from the usual roles erstwhile idols go for. Yasuko however has a spirited side which is brought out by Kanta and Shioji, which unfortunately Kanta misreads a green light. Maeda delivers big time in a pivotal scene where Yasuko and Kanta fight in the rain, showing promise for her acting future.
Sticking true to his Indie roots Yamashita keeps everything simple for that relatable, realistic effect and while he may be casting a wry eye over Japanese society, plenty of the key plot points are universally relevant. However, the film’s pace is a little slow at times and there is a strong case for some judicial editing as the third act drags beyond its means, while the denouement is frustratingly oblique with a touch of hope to make the deciphering somewhat positive.
Unlikely to win over non-Asianphiles The Drudgery Train has all the ingredients to satiate those of us who do enjoy a slice of quirky Japanese neo-realism. It’s not the most dynamic film you’ll see but its unapologetic bravado and low key charm will ensure this film makes it mark.