Book Review: “Bullet Train” by Kotaro Isaka


Having been conducting research about the shinkansen (‘bullet train’) for over 20 years, when I learnt of the book Bullet Train by Kotaro Isaka, I knew that I had to get a copy. Up until some years ago, I would probably have been more aware of the Japanese version being released and I may have already read that, but instead it was the English version that I came across first. I think I first learnt about it having spotted some discussion of a movie of Bullet Train being made. With the Japanese movie industry often doing remakes (as I have discussed in my article ‘Disaster Narratives by Design: Is Japan Different?‘ for example – and in relation to Climber’s High, Shizumanu Taiyo, and Nihon Chinbotsu), my first thought was that it was merely an updated version of the book Bullet Train by Arei Katothe film version of which starred the excellent Ken Takakura. However, not only does that book and movie have a different name in Japanese (Shinkansen Daibakuha – Shinkansen: Big Explosion), but it is a completely different story. Once again the original Japanese title is totally different as this book started life as Mariabitoru (Maria Beetle or Ladybird).

I have written before about the significance of ‘pillars of truth’ or ‘cantilevers of truth’ which help to make a story believable. I need a new term for a book such as this – something like ‘Pisa Foundations’. For although there are details in there which are seemingly there to help set the scene and make the story more believable, just as the foundations of a well-known tower in Pisa were designed to do, in reality they do the opposite and allow the believability of the story to sink.

Of course, some of the awareness of issues may be down to individuals and how much they know and for some it may not have the impact that it can have on those with additional knowledge or experience. Having studied and travelled on the shinkansen for so many years, there were many aspects that just didn’t work for me.

The first problem was the cover of the hard back version that I got. The story is set on a Tohoku Shinkansen Hayate service. Depending on when the story was set, this should be an E2 or E5 series shinkansen. But the image is not a train that runs on this line at all, but one owned by a different company (albeit with a seeming red stripe rather than orange or blue). The publishers of this book are not alone in making this graphical slip – as I discussed in a post about Photographing the Shinkansen: Hamamatsu Station – but it’s one that could so easily have been avoided.

Upon reading this book, you would be excused for thinking that riding the shinkansen is like travelling on some kind of noisy bucking bronco. Hardly a chapter goes by without the description of the train jumping around, someone falling, and for there to be noises from the line or train. While the deck area, the only place where phone calls are acceptable on Japanese trains (as I have discussed in my book Shinkansen: From Bullet Train to Symbol of Modern Japan), can be a bit noisier than the main carriage, the descriptions of the movements and noise are a serious exaggeration in my view, and for those used to the much louder and jerky motions of trains in the UK, for example, not helpful.

The next problem I have with the book is the way that time stretches and shortens. This can be a problem with many books and films, and the TV-series 24 has been one of the few to try to address the issue head on. The frustration with this issue, particularly when it comes to something as regular as a shinkansen service, annoys me so much that when I wrote my novel Hijacking Japan, I developed a way to try to keep a real time element to it. Given the massive variation between how long the train takes to get between Ueno and Omiya and then Sendai and Morioka, for example, Bullet Train could have done with something similar.

One thing I cannot make my mind about are the diagrams at the start of each chapter showing the train. On balance, I like it as it’s a clever little way to show which carriages (speaking of which, the book seems to slip between British and American English at times) within the train that the action in that chapter is taking place. That, together with a name of one of the characters in the book (as I have had recently with another book, Choose Me), helps you to know where we are on the train and who the focus will be upon. But, for me, there are a couple of things that could have been improved. First, why not make the shape look more like an actual shinkansen? Second, it would have been helpful, I suspect, for many readers to have an arrow to remind them which direction the train was travelling since this service (like all Tohoku Shinkansen travelling north from Tokyo) has carriage 1 at the rear rather than the front, as may be the natural instinct. Although this point is made (though not that clearly) in the main text, perhaps some could do with a reminder by the middle or later sections of the book.

A further detail that the book could have benefited from in places – and this is something that all translations should have – are some explanations from the translators (and others as appropriate) to explain some of the cultural issues that may not make sense to those unfamiliar with that particular country/culture. A train-related example of this is the way in which the train is linked to another and although this is referred to a few times, with a recurrent line in relation to it coming up, an explanation as to why (since such services are rare in most countries) may be useful for some readers.

Some nice observations about life are made in the book – but they are few and far between, and they are certainly not as hard hitting as those by Yokoyama in Climber’s High (translated as Seventeen in English). Overall, I was a bit disappointed by the book. It is marketed as a Thriller, but it barely felt like it -I just didn’t get the tension. Seventeen was similarly mis-pigeon-holed as a Mystery book, in my opinion. Perhaps I would have enjoyed Bullet Train more if I didn’t expect it to be a thriller. It’s a story. It has some thriller aspects. But there is also mystery. There’s also no shortage of comedy.

As the cover clarifies, the book is being made into a movie and the details are already on IMDb. Looking through the cast list, it becomes clear that the movie will be a big departure from the original book since the characters are predominantly non-Japanese. Seemingly, while the world is sophisticated enough to read translations of Japanese books, movies have to patronise us with predominantly American actors. I suspect I will watch it. I may even enjoy it. But there is a large part of me that hopes that it is rubbish. (On a side note, it is ironic that Sandra Bullock of Speed fame is in the movie, as that movie seemed to borrow a key storyline from the previous Bullet Train book and movie as I pointed to in my novel Hijacking Japan).

I suspect that this review sounds quite negative – but, actually, I did enjoy it – I just think it could have been better if it had been marketed differently as noted above (and also in relation to the title – although part of me, with my interests in the shinkansen and symbolism likes it that the title was switched so much from the original to use ‘Bullet Train’, another part finds it very dull and an unnecessary change) and if I hadn’t actually known as much as I do about the shinkansen.

Click here to get more information about the book on Amazon.

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