Director: Yoshihige Miyaki
Heartwarming, though very corny, multi-narrative story of passengers on Kobe's Hankyu line.
If you have Hitchcock's great Strangers on a Train on one end of the spectrum, a tale of a random encounter between two passengers that swiftly leads to murder and blackmail, then Hankyu Densha, with far more positive inter-traveler relations, sits firmly on the other side. It took away the Golden Ceasar and the Peace Award at this years Okinawa Film Festival. In the wake of the recent tragic events in Tohoku its message fits neatly into the general mood. It is a film that seeks to show the good-natured side of city life and remind us we are not alone. It is undeniably corny, yet hard not to be even slightly touched by it's relentless optimism.
The multi-stranded story begins with a beautiful business lady out for revenge on her ex-boyfriend. Every demographic is covered here; there is a university girl and her aggressive boyfriend, a sage old lady and her granddaughter, two country kids adapting to the big city, a middle-aged woman trying to fit in with the other mothers on the PTA, a high-school girl and her doting older boyfriend, and a bullied elementary school-girl. Gradually the characters narrative strands begin to weave into each other as they all begin to help each other through their problems.
While Hankyu Densha really strives not to leave anyone out, by ticking too many boxes it loses its focus. Some of the stories are genuinely interesting, and some of the others are decidedly less so. Muddling them up together weakens the stronger narrative strands and makes the weaker ones forgettable. The film starts promisingly with Shoko, played with elegance and dignity by the excellent Miki Nakatani, who has been summoned to a meeting in a crowded cafe by her boyfriend and her younger female colleague who has turned his head. She allows to let them marry without any fuss, but on the promise that she is allowed to attend the wedding party. It gets proceedings rolling with an icy bang, and it deserves its central role. But, when you contrast this to some of the other stories the drama just isn't there. In particular the mother who feels obliged to go to expensive lunches with the pantomime villain PTA mothers while her family eat left-overs is a non-starter.
Overall the cast are of a high standard. Nobuko Miyamoto, as the wise old grandmother gives a truly believable, charming, and well-judged performance. She is the anchor at the heart of this film, and its moral compass. When explaining things to her daughter, the insightful life lessons are often for the benefit of the others nearby, too. She is well supported by the afore mentioned Nakatani, who is the epitomy of glamor in her wedding dress and has you rooting for her from the off. There are no real weak links in the main cast but the story of the university girl, played capably by Erika Toda, and her violent boyfriend quickly becomes farcical. His character is just ridiculous and has no bearing on reality. He flies in to rages at the drop of a hat, is implausibly stupid, and plain two dimensional. He would be more at home on a daytime American soap, and it makes an important issue seem like a bad joke. It is amazing to think that no one involved could not see how absurd it is, luckily he is the exception and not the norm.
One of the films main problems is it just doesn't feel like a film, even with some decent acting talent. It feels far more like a national holiday Sunday night TV movie than genuine cinema. Half the pieces of the puzzle are in place with a strong cast, and a well thought out script. It really could of just done with a bit more visual finesse to carry it over. This seems to be a common problem in a lot of the "bigger" Japanese cinema releases and it is always a disappointment when within moments you realize the next couple of hours are going to filled by unambitious and middle of the road stuff. Hankyu Densha doesn't look shoddy or poorly made, it just looks like television.
This seems to have been made with the Japanese golden week holidays in mind. The multi-generational cast has the whisk of a corporate office trying to widen its audience. The majority female cast, and story-lines make this a solid holiday movie for the mums, daughters, and grandmas out there. It's not going to go down in history this, that said it is consistently watchable and if you are in for something to remind you that the world isn't such a miserable place you could do a lot worse. Personally though, I'll stick with Strangers on a Train.