Home Japanese warriors There’s a Big Problem With Brad Pitt’s ‘Bullet Train’ Movie

There’s a Big Problem With Brad Pitt’s ‘Bullet Train’ Movie


Ah, High-speed train.

I am eager to High-speed train because Kōtarō Isaka’s book of that name (from which it is adapted) is a straight banger, a deliciously twisted page-turner. One of its main characters is a ruthless assassin who obsessively (and knowingly) quotes Thomas the Tank 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 apparent 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” is a precursor. In fact, the cast is, in fact, 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 set on a Japanese cultural icon, a bullet train – a bullet train done right years before the UK started spending money on something that probably won’t not as good. The fact that this pushes the Japanese characters into the background, at least as far as all the promotional material goes, is shocking. It’s just. It just looks fake.

I get Brad Pitt’s involvement. It’s devilishly hard to crack a movie that doesn’t feature 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 having the Japanese characters sit so obviously in the back row? Audiences have been very receptive to the country’s 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 house art hit, as opposed to a bona fide international hit (perhaps unsurprisingly given its three-hour runtime and Chekhov obsession). But it was on those terms, and it won Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay and Director’s Nods 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 his squid game, which is capable of producing global hits. Maybe it’s just my long appreciation of Japan’s rich cinematic tradition and other cultural exports that bother me about this movie, which is set in Japan while taking Japan out.

But the audience, raised on Netflix, with its high-quality foreign-language content, is far more open-minded than Hollywood gives it credit for. They are, I think, able to see the problem. They’re not as dumb as movie directors like to think. I have to point out that Isaka came out in favor of the movie, which is 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.

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But put it this way: imagine a Robin Hood movie trying to excise Nottingham, and with only Alan-a-Dale and Friar Tuck reserved for British actors. Think how it would be with right-wing tabloids.

Want to see how badly it can go 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 film. But 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. He seems to have a blind spot when it comes to Asian actors in general – and that needs to be fixed.