Japanese satire at the NFT
apanese cinema isn't all samurai films, as evidenced by a film shown this evening at London's National Film Theatre as part of a Japanese season. Kon Ichikawa's Manin Densha (1957), translated variously as A Full-Up Train and Crammed Streetcar, is a satirical comedy on the state of Japanese society in the time before the giant electronics firms such as Sony transformed the world view of Japanese goods from cheapjack to leading quality.
Though played as broad comedy tending towards mania, the film has a surprisingly bitter undertone. A young university graduate (Hiroshi Karagushi) gets a coveted post with a large beer brewing company. He is given a simple job dealing with order forms: and is told off for finishing his first allocated day's work in ten minutes (the management can't streamline the company if he works that efficiently). For the future he calculates he should take two minutes and five seconds to process each form and learns to proceed at that rate. Living with the other 'salarymen' in the works housing - a small bare room for each worker - he is given to calculating the amount of money he expects to have saved by the time he retires (getting ludicrously optimistic results).
Suffering from a toothache whenever the noisy machines are running, and then painful knees, the company doctor gives him a shot in his buttock which cures the knees but gives him a violent pain in his buttock: another shot, in the other buttock, cures the pain but turns his hair white. Colliding accidentally with a lampost, he is in hospital in a coma for a month (the rest turns his hair black again). On awaking and returning to work he is fired for being absent for more than a week. He is unable to get a job - nobody wants to hire graduates - until he leaves his qualifications off an application form and gets a job as a school janitor - from which he is fired when the teachers discover he is better qualified than they are. He sets up as a private tutor for the children in a scruffy home-made shack behind the janitor's hut, optimistically calculating how much he can earn by retirement... and in the meantime a batch of new children are told they can go on to higher education and have a bright prospect in front of them.
The train of the title appears only once - crammed like a cattle truck. The film is very funny at times, though rather disjointed - there are subplots involving his dotty mother and self-important father, and three ex-girl-friends who he ditches on getting the job and then writes identical letters to (they bin them).
Ichikawa saw the film as a failure: he had hoped the lead character would be like Chaplin (presumably hoping for a Japanese Modern Times), which didn't come off; but despite the inevitable comparisons with Chaplin and René Clair the film has its own crazy atmosphere and along with the mad comedy makes a serious point about the difficult state of Japanese society at the time.
Posted: Tue - July 8, 2008 at 09:31 PM by Roger Wilmut
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Published On: Mar 11, 2016 05:00 PM