Not quite Tora-san on slow-train coming

by Mark Schilling

The Japanese have a love affair with trains, especially the ones that trundle through the more picturesque parts of the country. One sure way to draw tourists to your rural prefecture is an ancient steam locomotive that chugs through a pretty middle-of-nowhere. For many visitors, it’s not the destination, but the train journey.

The long-running Tora-san (1969-1996) and “Tsuribaka Nisshi” (“Diary of a Fishing Fool,” 1988-2009) series visited a different, often remote, part of Japan in each episode (though given its piscatorial theme, “Tsuribaka,” didn’t spend a lot of screen time up in the mountains). Fans enjoyed these perambulations, whether by train or not.

Robot Communications, maker of many successful commercial films, has combined the two themes of travel and trains in one heartwarming, if predictable, cinematic package, with the aim of spinning out another hit series.

Produced by Robot founder Shinji Abe, Yoshinari Nishikori’s “Railways,” is distinctly different from Tora-san and “Tsuribaka,” however. For one thing, instead of a bumbling, but lovable tramp (Tora-san) or lazy, but lovable salaryman (“Tsuribaka”) hero, “Railways” centers on a high-powered executive, played by Kiichi Nakai.

The story about the exec’s return to his roots and his realization of a childhood dream is a stand-alone aimed squarely at Japan’s graying baby boomers, particularly the urban workaholics who dream of one day retiring to the hinterlands. By contrast,” Tora-san” and “Tsuribaka” targeted average folks for whom the adventures of the feckless heroes were less an inspiration than a mental vacation.

Director Yoshinari Nishikori
Run Time 130 minutes
Language Japanese

The hero of “Railways” is Hajime Tsutsui, a 49-year-old middle manager at a big electronics maker who is assigned to close down a factory. But the factory manager (Kenichi Endo), Tsutsui’s long-time colleague and friend, decides to quit rather than accept a transfer. Meanwhile, Tsutsui’s wife, Yukiko (Reiko Takashima), is preoccupied with her new herb shop, while his college student daughter (Yuika Motokariya) is, to his critical eyes, too laid-back about her future.

Then his mother (Tomoko Naraoka) in Izumo, Shimane Prefecture, has a mild heart attack and Tsutsui, accompanied by his daughter, reluctantly makes the long journey to his picture-postcard home town. While he is there, itching to get back to work, he receives two shocks that I won’t detail here — and is confronted with his own mortality. Realizing that his family is a collection of strangers under one roof, that he is not living the life he really wants, Tsutsui makes a radical decision: He will stay in Izumo and become a train driver — a job he has dreamed of since boyhood.

He gets the job — or rather a chance to qualify as a driver, together with a sullen ex-baseball-player (Takahiro Miura) half his age. Thus begins his new career — and the heart of the story. Dreams are one thing, he discovers, but reality is more complicated.

Nishikori, who cowrote the film’s original script and also filmed his 2002 drama “Shiroi Fune” (“White Ship”) in his native Shimane, refrains from piling on melodramatic complications. Instead, he combines a certain realism about typical baby-boomer issues — aging parents, routinized marriages and dwindling life choices — with a rather rosy view of life as a provincial train driver.

Tsutsui’s new colleagues, from a friendly senior driver (Masahiro Komoto) to an avuncular maintenance crew boss (Tetsu Watanabe), are supportive, salt-of-the-Earth types, as are the other folks in Izumo, from his mom’s ever-smiling nurse (Yoshiko Miyazaki) to a bearish former classmate (Ken Nakamoto).

Naturally, there are crises — and resolutions that deliver the promised tears and smiles. But rather than soar to a big climax, the story moves with the speed of a kakueki (local train) that the more impatient might wish were an express.

As Tsutsui, Nakai is the anti-Tora-san — smart, sophisticated and, in the opening scenes, arrogant and aloof. The story is about Tsutsui’s rehumanization, which Nakai portrays as less a dramatic transformation than a relaxing into a former, better self. Shedding his elite businessman carapace, Tsutsui reveals himself as a decent guy, but still disciplined, still steady at the wheel. In other word, the ideal train driver — a job that requires the temperament of a responsible, focused adult, not a goofy eternal child. Tora-san, in other words, need not apply.

The film makes the railroad business looks as inviting as a warm soak in a friendly local sento (public bath). Everything from the stations to the trains look run-down and over-the-hill — but lovingly maintained by people who clearly take pride in their work.

It’s hard not to think of the railroad as a metaphor for Japan itself — or rather Japan as the filmmakers would like to us to view it: A place that’s seen better days, but is still full of good-hearted, hardworking folks.

Among them are the boomers who, like the pensionless Tsutsui, may have to keep the country’s wheels turning until their own fall off. “Railways” may be intended nostalgia for the simple life, but it also looks like the future.