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‘The Railway Man’

by Kaori Shoji

Speaking as a Japanese, “The Railway Man” is extremely difficult to sit through, as it deals with the treatment of British POWs by the Japanese Army after they took Singapore during World War II.

Actually, contemplating even a fragment of the events that unfolded in Southeast Asia during that war weighs so heavily on the brain it’s easier to just stop thinking at all. But “The Railway Man” is a story that must be told and we in turn must bear the viewing experience, if only to confirm the lasting impact of war on the individual.

Directed by Australia’s Jonathan Teplitzky, “The Railway Man” chronicles the encounter of two men who wind up facing each other across an interrogation table. On one side is 21-year-old Eric Lomax (excellently portrayed by Jeremy Irvine), a British Royal Signals Officer taken as a POW along with thousands of others by the victorious Japanese Army. On the other side is Takashi Nagase (Tanroh Ishida), a military interpreter and former student at Aoyama Gakuin University. Nagase’s job is to issue orders on behalf of his superiors. Lomax’s job is to work on the Thailand-Burma railway.

The Railway Man (Railway Unmei no Tabiji)
Rating
Director Jonathan Teplitzky
Run Time 116 minutes
Language English

British colonialists have tried in vain to get this railway going but now it is imperative for the Japanese Army to transport supplies from Burma to Thailand, and so the POWs are forced into grueling labor under terrible circumstances. Lomax is abused and tortured for two straight weeks, with Nagase — the translator from hell — present the whole time.

Based on the memoirs of both Lomax and Nagase, “The Railway Man” probes an eternal question: Why do humans torture other humans? Lomax (played as an older man by Colin Firth) survives the torture and returns to England, but has spent a huge chunk of his adult life trying to escape from the vice-grip of his memories as a POW. Of all the Japanese in that prison camp, he remembers Nagase as clearly as he can recall his friend and fellow prisoner, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård).

Director Jonathan Teplitzky re-creates the era and the railway with meticulous attention to detail; some scenes are sheer agony to watch. Still, one of the wonders of Lomax’s story is that in spite of everything, he retains a lifelong love for trains and railways. It was on a train trip that he met his wife, Patricia (Nicole Kidman). She eventually persuades him to confront Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada), who, it turns out, is living near the very site of the prison camp where Lomax was held four decades earlier.

The story belongs to Eric and Patricia Lomax, and Nagase is more of a symbol than a real man. In the movie, the older Nagase is working as a tour guide; in real life, he made repeated pilgrimages to Thailand and worked for reconciliation between former POWs and Japan. It’s up to Hiroyuki Sanada to imply what isn’t depicted here, and his efforts can only be described as heroic.

  • Bruce Chatwin

    “British colonialists have tried in vain to get this railway going but now it is imperative for the Japanese Army to transport supplies from Burma to Thailand”

    Surely the author means that it was imperative for the Japanese Army to transport supplies from Thailand to Burma to support the Japanese colonial troops that had invaded Burma.

    No mention in the article of the 60,000 Asian forced labourers that died making the railway. Nor is there any mention of the more than 12,000 Allied POWs used as slave labour who died from from atrocities, starvation, and disease while making the railway.

  • Rosa Kwong

    This author found “The Railway Man” difficult/uncomfortable to sit through…next he should try watching “Nanjing, City of Life and Death.” The atrocities portrayed in that dramatized semi-documentary were such that even the German Nazi’s representative in Nanjing objected. The reason the author was awe-struck is because Japanese schools do not tell their youngsters the truth about what their forefathers did. What’s shown in the movie surprised him. Like Nagese said in the movie, “They don’t talk about it.” How these people can live with that part of their history is beyond the civilized world. They were Nazis in Japanese uniform. To date, the Japanese have not apologized nor paid reparations.