The Drudgery Train: Shanghai Review

Unconventional, unsentimental view of a Japanese working class hero.

Young cover-boy Mirai Moriyama breaks out as a working class anti-hero in director Nobuhiro Yamashita’s unconventional coming of ager set in 1988 Tokyo.

An out-of-the-ordinary coming of age story set in 1988 Tokyo, The Drudgery Train reprises the tongue-in-cheek coarseness and cruelty of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s 1999 indie directing debut Hazy Life, once again featuring an irresistible anti-social hero who refuses to become a productive member of Japanese society. Though well directed, this often exhilarating screen adaptation of Kenta Nishimura’s novel feels way too long and under-edited; still, the hypnotic brashness of the young lead Mirai Moriyama should go a long way towards holding teen viewers in their seats until a final, unrevealable clincher rewards one’s faith in him. It opens in Japan July 14.

Charming young rogue Kanta (played by part-time model and emerging actor Moriyama) is a high school drop-out keenly aware of his educational deficit; in fact, between bouts of drinking, whoring, fighting, numbing work and peep shows, he is a compulsive reader in love with books. His back-breaking job as a manual laborer brings him into contact with the slightly better-educated Shoji (Kengo Koura), a hick with a Beatles haircut and puppy-dog looks who is just plain nice.  Though they’re at extreme ends of the human spectrum, opposites attract. Kanta turns Shoji into his drinking buddy, and Shoji gives him the courage to reveal his attraction to college girl Yasuko (Atsuko Maeda) who works in a second-hand bookstore.

Director Yamashita shows fine control over tone, never letting scenes or characters sink into banality; Yasuko, for instance, turns out to be much smarter, deeper and hipper than the prim college girl she first appears to be. With the two boys, she shares a Jules and Jim moment on the beach that makes the heart sing. And when Shoji starts seriously dating a truly prim college girl that, too, feels right and even courageous for the man he’s growing into.

Scriptwriter Shinji Imaoka brings out the darkness not just in Kanta’s heart, but in the fate of the Japanese under-class whose dream of a better life seems like a bad joke. Typical is the story of an older laborer who is excited to find mussels growing along the dock and plans to sell them to restaurants, until he’s shot down by a cynical co-worker; later, an accident on the job puts an end to his optimism. Kanta’s unexpected encounter with his ex-girlfriend who has become a sex worker is along the same disillusioned lines, this time handled with a humorous realism that undercuts its pain. Throughout this over-long film, which drags Kanta over a lot of coals, Moriyama shows the crazy, defiant rudeness of an unconventional hero it would be good to see more of.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (official selection)
Production companies: Matchpoint, Toei Tokio
Cast: Mirai Moriyama, Kengo Koura (Shoji), Atsuko Maeda (Yasuko),
Makitasupotsu, Tomorowo Taguchi
Director: Nobuhiro Yamashita
Screenwriter: Shinji Imaoka based on a novel by Kenta Nishimura
Producer: Ryo Kawada
Director of photography: Yoshihiro Ikeuchi
Production designer:  Norifumi Ataka
Editor: Takashi Sato
Music: Shinko
Sales Agent: Bitters End, Tokyo
No rating, 112’ minutes.