Ah, High-speed train.
I am eager to High-speed train because Kotaro Isaka’s book of the same name (from which it’s adapted) is a pure banger, a delightfully twisted page-turner. One of its main characters is a ruthless assassin who obsessively (and knowingly) quotes Thomas the Chariot Engine, for God’s sake. It’s wonderfully distorted.
When I got to the first chapter of Lemon – Lemon is the character’s name – I was hooked. And there’s a lot more to love about it than that. The problem with the film, however, is evident even before its release next week. It’s just looks Wrong. I mean, where are the Japanese actors? In promos and trailers and everything. Why are they in the background?
I won’t talk about cultural appropriation here, because I’m afraid that term is being overused. Nor will I write a treatise on Hollywood’s still poor treatment of Asian actors, although I can. This isn’t me trying to be “woke” – a word I don’t like because it’s a ridiculous, overexposed term mostly used as a stick by talkative culture warriors on the right. Or “PC”, its ancestor. In fact, the cast is actually admirably diverse. Which is welcome.
It replaces Isaka’s Japanese team of assassins (although they’re not really a team) with an international cast. But come on. It’s a story about a Japanese cultural icon, a bullet train – a well-made bullet train, years before the UK started spending money on something that won’t be probably not as good. That it pushes Japanese characters into the background, at least as far as promotional material goes, is shocking. It’s just. It looks wrong.
I get Brad Pitt’s involvement. It’s devilishly hard to crack a movie that doesn’t involve superheroes or come from some other pre-existing blockbuster property – like Superior gun‘s suite, for example – right now. If you’re starting something new, it’s a lot easier if you have an A-list name with a nine-figure hit streak front and center.
But surely the writers could have achieved this without forcing the Japanese characters to sit in the back row? Audiences have been very receptive to Japanese cultural exports, especially cartoons. Demon Slayer: Mugen Train racked up half a billion dollars in worldwide ticket sales for a trippy and at times downright bizarre film, while still managing to retain an emotional core. And, at least in this country, he had to overcome a 15 certificate.
The marvelous drive my car was more of a critical (and arthouse) success, as opposed to a bona fide international hit, perhaps unsurprisingly given its three-hour runtime and Chekhov’s obsession. But it was a success, in those terms, and it won Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Director at the Oscars before winning the inevitable Best International Feature to add to its bulging trophy cabinet.
So don’t tell me that Japanese properties won’t sell to an international audience unless they are internationalized first. They can. And do. It’s not just South Korea, with its Parasite and squid game, which is capable of producing global hits. It’s perhaps my long-standing appreciation of Japan’s rich cinematic tradition and its other cultural exports that makes me feel uneasy about this film – which is set in Japan, but seems to want to distance itself from the country at the same time.
Audiences high on Netflix, with its deep well of high-quality foreign-language content, are far more open-minded than Hollywood gives them credit for. They are, I think, able to see the problem. They’re not as dumb as movie directors like to think. I should point out that Isaka himself spoke in favor of the film – something worth noting. This will of course sell him a lot of books and introduce his work to a global audience (a good thing). But there are plenty of authors in a similar position who have seen adaptations of their work and cried foul.
To keep up to date with all the latest opinions and comments, sign up for our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter. click here
In other words: imagine a Robin Hood movie that attempts to excise Nottingham, and with only the roles of Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck reserved for British actors. Think how it would be with right-wing tabloids.
Want to see how bad it can get with an ill-chosen Robin? Check out Kevin Costner’s turn in green, if you can bear to constantly hear bloody Brian Adams singing “Everything I Do” throughout the movie. You might be better off watching it with the volume down, except during the Alan Rickman scenes (he steals the movie as the Sheriff of Nottingham).
Look, I will see High-speed train. I love the book, and popcorn action movies can be a real tonic if done right. This one doesn’t have to be equal John Wick (and it probably won’t). It should only be a little better than The gray man to make the trip worth it.
But Hollywood can and should do better with its casting choices. And yes, I will say it: there seems to be a blind spot when it comes to Asian actors in general – and that needs to be fixed.