Death and endings are everywhere in Yasuo Furuhata’s touching drama
“Wave the flag when you want to fight.
Sound a whistle when you want to cry
Cry your lungs out when you want to yell…”
It is impossible, they say, to be sure of anything other than death and taxes. I can’t speak for the latter but the former is certainly true in the 1999 drama Railroad Man. Death, conclusions and endings permeate every aspect of Furuhata’s drama about a lonely railway stationmaster named Otomatsu Sato (Ken Takakura), who lives and works in a tiny village at the end of a railroad line, somewhere in rural Hokkaido. Oto lives by a strict timetable, and his dedication to keeping the trains running and on-time has caused his personal life to spiral downwards.
Haunted by memories of his wife and daughter – who have both passed away by the time movie starts – he focuses himself entirely on his job. However, due to the village being bad for profits, the line is scheduled to be closed. Around New Years’ Eve, his old friend and fellow stationmaster Senji (Nenji Kobayashi) arrives to tell him of the news. They reminisce, and Senji offers Oto a job at a nearby hotel, which Oto declines. He says the railway is his life, and declines. Things get more complicated when he is visited by a girl (Ryoko Hirouse) who reminds him of his daughter.
Railroad Man’s biggest success is that it achieves its dramatic moments without trying too hard. This film is incredibly low-key, never going for any broad laughs and sweeping theatrics to bring its point across. The collaboration between the writer of the original novel Jiro Asafa, screenwriter Yoshiki Iwama and director Yasuo Furuhata decides to focus more on small moments and recurring ideas. As I mentioned at the beginning, the theme of things meeting their end is incredibly prevalent: from the movie being set at the end of a line, to many plot points (such as a local mine shutting down, or the village being full of the elderly). Oto lives in a world that exists only to end, and the thought of starting fresh at a hotel is alien to him.
A lot of what we know of Oto is largely due to his portrayal and the actor chosen to play him. Props to Ken Takakura, who carries the majority of the film. I’ve mentioned before how his subdued acting is perfect for these kinds of roles. His iconic mix of brooding and stoicism shows an internal conflict and a suppressed misery that only bubbles up to the surface in its entirety when the scene has earned it. Takakura has had decades to refine this technique and he knows how to portray his characters are real humans. It’s largely due to this performance, and the ones of his co-stars, that the movie works as well as it does.
That said, the story itself is nicely paced – never moving particularly quickly – and is interspersed with flashbacks and character moments. These moments help us empathise with Oto and the people that he meets. Sure, he’s a stubborn old man but we understand what it is that brought him to this life and to the state he currently is in. The writing can be subtle or explicit whenever it needs to be and flows nicely between the two, never going too far in one direction. It reminds me of a quiet piece of classical music, piano for the most part, but forte at the most crucial moments.
Using a variety of techniques to show the passing of time, flashbacks and the like, Furuhata knows what direction works in what scene. He uses the scenery to his advantage quite nicely. The towering mountains highlight Oto’s loneliness, and the snowy winter setting (at the end of the year, no less) emphasises that there is little life and little future to be found here. The movie is infused with this idea right from the beginning and refuses to let go even as we approach the touching, inevitable conclusion.
Verdict: Filled with drama, comedy and sweet moments, Railroad Man is brings the year to a highly satisfying end.
The Asian Cinema Critic Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Sex: Even less
Interpretations of the end: I think it’s pretty straightforward, don’t you?
Professionalism: Stoicly Japanese/10
Railroad Man (1999)
Aka: 鉄道員, Poppoya
Director: Yasuo Furuhata
Writers: Jiro Asada (novel), Yoshiki Iwama
Ken Takakura: Otomatsu Sato
Shinobu Otake: Shizue Sato
Ryoko Hirosue: Yukiko
Nenji Kobayashi: Senji Sugiura
Hidetaka Yoshioka: Hideo Sugiura
Masanobu Ando: Toshiyuki Yoshioka
Ken Shimura: Hajime Yoshioka
Tomoko Naraoka: Mune Kato
Yoshiko Tanaka: Akiko Sugiura