Action maven David Leitch’s Bullet Train is the best Tarantino clone of 2004. Only problem is, the film released in 2022.
I just returned from a late-night showing of the film, which recently opened here in Tokyo. As with most Hollywood offerings that happen to take place in Japan, local advertising has made much ado about the movie’s setting. (Concessions at my theater were even selling special Bullet Train-themed “Bread Train,” a “two-car” monstrosity made with matcha flavoring.)
Whether the presentation of Japan within the film, or the film itself, made much impression upon my fellow movie-goers was hard to tell; similarly to almost all movie showings in Japan, the audience remained deathly quiet throughout every gory headshot and snarky subtitled quip.
Anyone, however, used to either American action-comedy, or Hollywood’s imagination of Japan, would have come away unsurprised. As a flick whose sole pitch is “quirky assassins on a train but in Japan,” there’s very little new here. And like so many foreign films before it, be they The Wolverine, Cars 2, Avengers: Endgame, or Last Samurai, the version of Japan here presented doesn’t resemble anything someone living in the country itself would recognize. In a meta sense, however, the film does have something that sets it apart: unlike most other Japan-set Hollywood outings, it’s actually based on a Japanese book.
How ‘Bullet Train’ Imagines Japan
Alas, Martin Scorsese’s Silence this isn’t. That film, based on Endo Shushaku’s book of the same name, alongside Paul Schrader’s Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, are probably the only Hollywood movies I can think of that actually get Japan right. Not that author Isaka Kotaro (伊坂 幸太郎) seems to mind. In an interview with Motoko Rich, the bestselling Sendai-based mystery novelist says that his work doesn’t aim to educate the world on anything specifically Japanese. So, when characters who originally bore Japanese names in the film’s source book, “Maria Beetle/マリアビートル,” are played by non-Japanese actors like Brad Pitt (affectionately known as Burapi in Japan), it’s no big deal to Isaka. After all, he says, his characters are “not real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese.” 
The end result within the film itself, however, is that the Japanese source material and setting become very little more than fantastical set-dressing. In the Japan of Bullet Train, Japanese people are somehow a minority in their own national transit system. Fully two named, speaking characters are played by Japanese actors (the ever-present Sanada Hiroyuki in one of the film’s best roles, and Andrew Koji as his son). Two more minor roles are played by ethnically Japanese actors who should be recognizable to US audiences: Heroes‘ Masi Oka as a train conductor and Karen Fukuhara, of Suicide Squad and The Boys fame, as a “train concession girl.” The rest of the cast is diverse in a way that’s somewhat laudable but which supplants Japanese representation within the film; even the Yakuza Big Bad is a white dude (a sadly underutilized Michael Shannon).
A Fantasy Setting
It’s not as though the Japan the characters exist within much more authentic. COVID border closures meant no filming on location; the producers even considered shifting the setting out of Asia entirely. Instead, they chose to maintain Tokyo for its “international appeal,” but ended up creating something which does not visually resemble Japan outside of the imagination of those who have never been here. Properly representing Japan is certainly not what the film is interested in doing; this is, after all, a purposefully silly film about exaggerated gun fights and double-crosses. Some, however, will still find this a little distracting.
The original book was set on the real-life Hayate shinkansen that runs through Isaka’s home region of Tohoku; the movie instead is set on a very much non-existent overnight bullet train from Tokyo to Kyoto. In real life, the usual shinkansen route between new and old Japanese capitals takes all of 140 minutes; even the longest shinkansen route via the Kodama train takes only four hours. The trains within the film are designed to look like shinkansen, but leave from small, grimy platforms like those you’d see on a local countryside station. The fictive train stops at real cities on the Tokyo-Kyoto route – Hamamatsu, Nagoya, etc. But the stations as they are briefly shown are clearly based on your average local JR stopover, rather than anything that would ever house a bullet train. And then there’s the view of Mount Fuji, as famously seen from Kyoto…
These probably all seem like quibbles, and given the film’s tone, they sort of are. The movie feels like nothing less than your average sardonic-yet-gory indie comic from the early 2000s, adapted for the big screen. The Japan we see here is like something out of an American comic artist’s imagination, based mostly on watching a few yakuza films and misplacing the setting in Blade Runner. I wouldn’t insist an indie comic artist who’s never been to Japan to get it 100% right, just like I don’t expect manga artists who’ve never left Japan to portray New York or London in any authentic way. I suppose if this wasn’t based on a Japanese book, I might feel more able to ignore the visual incongruity.
Momonga Among Us
Perhaps the best example here is Momonga, the fictional Pikachu-esque “anime” character seen throughout the film. An entire car on the eponymous bullet train is devoted to the character, complete with deep purple lighting and cutouts patterned on its face on every seat. A yurukyara mascot suit of the character wanders through the car, interacting with children and getting in the principal characters’ ways. The problem is that the wide-eyed Momonga just doesn’t look like a Japanese design. Rather, it looks like what people who’ve maybe seen a Pokemon in passing think anime mascots look like. It honestly looks more like the sort of design you’d see on a character at Beijing Capital Airport than something in Japan.
Pretty much nothing looks right, and when something does, it only does so as a weird Dall-e sort of artificial mashup. And unlike, say, the Hollywood adaptation of Ghost in the Shell (which is its own can of worms), Bullet Train can’t even rely on being obviously set in some technopunk future to excuse how off-base and exoticized it looks.
Even when the movie tries to incorporate actual Japanese culture, it feels perfunctory. The biggest examples are musical; two very short uses of classic Japanese tunes, namely Carmen Maki’s haunting 1969 “Tokiniwa Haha no Nai Ko no Youni” and Sakamoto Kyu’s “Ue wo Muite Arukou.” (Better known in the US under its chart-topping name “Sukiyaki.”) The choice of Carmen Maki is notable, but both tunes’ use within the film is fairly uninspired. Mad Men did Sakamoto Kyu much better justice. (As did Studio Ghibli’s From Up on Poppy Hill).
Regarding the limited Japanese casting and very strange representation of the country, I believe Motoko Rich put it best: the film can “perhaps best be described as Japan-adjacent.” Whether or not this is problematic depends on the viewer. The audience in Japan is not likely to care overmuch, since Japanese moviegoers are constantly watching their own domestic films portray their country and population; seeing Hollywood take any sort of real Japan out of a Japanese story is perhaps a fun curiosity. For Japanese individuals in the diaspora, it may be more of an issue; seeing roles that could have gone to Japanese-American actors be shifted to big-name Caucasians has been cause for some consternation.
David Inoue, the Executive Director of the Japanese American Citizens League, has expressed a relatively common frustration with the casting.  “This movie seeks to affirm the belief that Asian actors in the leading roles cannot carry a blockbuster, despite all the recent evidence indicating otherwise, beginning with Crazy Rich Asians and extending to Shang Chi.”
But is Bullet Train Any Good?
So, setting aside whether or not the portrayal of Japan and the paucity of Japanese characters is an issue, Bullet Train itself a good movie? Well, it does have some charms. Brad Pitt is certainly one of them, even if the idea of “character who doesn’t seem tough but is actually a master assassin” is pretty played out. He brings his usual relaxed swagger to the role, which works well for the characterization. Sanada, as mentioned above, is great as always, even though he’s essentially playing the same samurai-esque badass role Hollywood has typecast him in. There’s also some mildly enjoyable banter between a pair of fraternal assassins, played by Brian Tyree Henry and Aaron Taylor-Johnson, who engage in some passable back-and-forth.
Most importantly for an action film, there is some inspired fight choreography that makes good use of the cramped train car setting (essentially the whole draw of the film). We see some cool stuff, including a fun fight where characters attempt to subdue each other while maintaining silence on the train’s quiet car. (Quiet cars don’t exist on real shinkansen, and the scene also features the characters being shushed by an improbably Caucasian passenger who seems like she was pulled out of a midwestern library in the 1980s.) It’s also worth noting some brief moments of interesting cinematography, like when the camera follows a bottle rolling across the floor of the train.
But honestly, I found it all pretty tired. There’s nothing here that director Leitch hasn’t done better in other films, like the vastly superior John Wick, which is similarly set in a silly, pulpy land of fantasy assassins but with characters whose motivations you actually care about.
Bullet Train‘s characters, on the other hand, refuse to shut up, with the screenwriters trying to pull off witty Tarantino-esque dialogue but failing to generate many laughs or intrigue. This is part of what makes the film resemble such fare as 2006’s Lucky Number Slevin and other derivatives, although without the attempt at maintaining much in the way of a twist. These days, people like to complain about the jokey dialogue in Marvel films, but the non-stop character interchange here is honestly more grating. The story is also jumbled and weightless. (Although you don’t usually come to a film like this for the story.) Overall, it really feels like a film from a previous decade in terms of both tone and its treatment of Japan.
In other words, I didn’t really end up enjoying it, even on an ironic level. Which is too bad – I do enjoy my camp, when done right. Plenty of other viewers seem to have had a better time, however, and those who have read Isaka’s book say the movie does actually capture its tone quite well. So, for those who don’t mind relatively light-hearted action fare with minimal themes or thinking involved, Bullet Train will probably be worth a watch. Just don’t go expecting anything more – or expecting a real effort to represent Japan.
What to Read Next:
Kwaidan: A Filmic Venture into Uncanny Japan
 Rich, Motoko. (07/27/22). The Japanese Author Behind ‘Bullet Train’ Is OK That the Film Isn’t So Japanese. The New York Times.
 Tao, Rachel. (03/23/22). Controversy builds over possible whitewashing in Brad Pitt’s ‘Bullet Train’. AsAmNews.