Yoshimitsu Morita, who died last December at 61, would seem to be a classic example of a brilliant young independent filmmaker who ends up as a mainstream journeyman, a career path all too common in Japanese films.
After winning international praise for “Kazoku Gemu (The Family Game),” a 1983 black comedy about a cynical home tutor’s takeover of a dysfunctional family, Morita was hailed as the fresh, new voice of Japanese cinema.
In the 1990s, however, he took a more commercial turn, scoring a smash hit with 1997′s “Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise),” a portentous drama about an adulterous middle-aged couple who commit double-suicide. Morita, however, was never easy to pigeonhole; to the end he kept returning to his experimental and comic roots, with varying box office and critical success.
“Bokutachi Kyuko: A Ressha de Iko (Take the ‘A’ Train),” a gently goofy paean to the joys of trainspotting that he finished shooting just two months before his death, is an unlikely swan song.
Watching Kenichi Matsuyama and Eita play simple-souled train buffs who find uncomplicated pleasure in each other’s company, I understood again why actors lined up to work with Morita: He gave them permission to stretch beyond their usual screen personae, from the strange to the silly.
Similar to Johnny Depp in his affinity for nonconformist, oddball roles (see his reclusive, sweets-addicted detective L in the “Death Note” films for an example), Matsuyama boards ” ‘A’ Train” as Kei Komachi, a nerdy salaryman working for a big real-estate developer. Eita, who plays the Unabomber-like loner in Toshiaki Toyoda’s new drama “Monsters Club,” is Kenta Kodama, the unworldly son of a small metal-shop owner who is fascinated by anything metallic, especially if it has wheels and rides on rails.
These two first lock eyes on a one-car rural line beloved by train buffs and later serendipitously reunite and become instant soul mates. The bromance that develops is devoid of any sexual vibes, but is full of gay overtones for anyone paying attention, and the two leads generate some comedy from this. Their fine comic balancing act supplies many of the film’s laughs.
Most of the humor, however, revolves around the railroad obsession of Komachi and Kodama (whose names, as are many of the characters’, are derived from real trains). There is nothing particularly new or trendy about this form of otaku-ism. Morita could have filmed this story in 1981 with few changes, which gives the entire enterprise, including its gags, a retro, even musty feel. But ” ‘A’ Train” has a low-key charm that keeps it trundling along, even when tired jokes go off the rails and hackneyed plot lines run out of steam.
When Komachi is transferred to Kyushu by the company’s amiably spacey female president (Keiko Matsuzaka) to help with a stalled project, he leaves behind not only Komachi, but two women who see him as marriage material: the clingy, needy Azumi (Shihori Kanjiya) and the smilingly persistent Midori (Eri Murakawa). Meanwhile, the girlfriendless Kodama has an omiai (meeting for the purpose of marriage) with the straightforward and unpredictable Ayame (Chisato Matsudaira), but their budding romance fails to bloom.
Once in Fukuoka, however, Komachi only has eyes for the local trains, a love luckily shared by his company’s uncooperative client, the president of a local food-maker (Pierre Taki). After these two connect and click, and Komachi calls on Kodama for moral and technical support, the path is seemingly cleared for a happy ending. First, though Kodama has to cross a roadblock thrown up by a stubborn landowner (Masato Ibu) who refuses to sell a parcel needed for the project. How can Kodama put him on the track to yes?
This shambling plot, which serves as a convenient rack on which to hang jokes, recalls the economic-boom-era comedies of Hisaya Morishige and Hitoshi Ueki, though their scapegrace energy and verve is in little evidence. Another reference is Masaharu Segawa’s “Ryoko (Trip)” series from 1968-1972, which starred Frankie Sakai as a bumbling Japan Railways man, but its wacky invention is absent in ” ‘A’ Train.”
Morita himself was at his comic best with “The Family Game,” in which he observed the absurdities of contemporary middle-class life with a sharp satirical eye. In ” ‘A’ Train” he was just having a bit of harmless fun, little aware that his own last train was pulling out of the station. I hope he’s enjoying the ride.