February 18, 2016
Poppoya – Railroad Man – Japan, 1999
The railroad is a contradictory image. On the one hand, it is a symbol of modernity, for it was the railroad that opened new avenues for both travelers and businesses, as well as one of the reasons that the North had an advantage during the American Civil War. On the other hand, many railroads exist today only reminders of a past greatness and relevance that time has slowly chipped away at, and stretches of ghost track mark where prosperous cities of immense historical importance once stood and where now few people reside. Yasuo Furuhata‘s 2015 film, Poppoyo – Railroad Man, is very much about this contradiction. It is set in a fictional small town in northern Japan whose best days are clearly behind it. Yet, what a town it used to be. In flashbacks, we see just how important coal towns were to past economies and just how much steam trains were relied on during Japan’s reconstruction after the Second World War. In present-day scenes, trains arrive along a once mighty train line without a single passenger on them. This is just one of the signs that the end is near.
The train station is run by Otomatsu Sato, played by veteran actor Ken Takamura. In early scenes, we see examples of Otomatsu’s professionalism and dedication, as he stands out in the snow watching trains arrive and depart. He notes the time of arrival, and as trains leave, he never fails to observe the rear lights and the signal, vocally checking them off a mental list of things that help ensure safe passage. It is in this fashion that he has spent the majority of his life, so it is tempting to see it as being representative of his generation. However, the film does not hold Otomatsu up as a beacon of light to be followed by younger generations, for as the film progresses, we see the consequences of his dedication to his job – important experiences missed out on, tragic moments that he was absent from, and loved ones that he should have spent more time with. He speaks of sorrow and pain as things that cannot be expressed outwardly, and his face is a constant reminder of all that he has lost. In other words, his professionalism has come at a steep cost.
Just what he has lost is revealed throughout the film, and I enjoyed these moments quite a lot. At times, they reminded me of my own youth, a time when I consistently found a reason to say yes to working on holidays – even on Christmas. Sadly, you don’t get those moments back, and as time has gone by, it has become increasingly difficult to justify my actions with a broad explanation of professionalism and dedication to one’s job. I suspect this is a little of what Otomatsu is going through throughout the film – looking back, reflecting on his actions, understanding them, yet also wondering if they were really worth it.
In flashbacks, we meet Otomatsu’s late wife (Shinobu Otake). She is a woman whose goal it was to be understanding of her husband’s dedication to his job, and for the most part she was proud of her husband. There’s also a young man named Toshi, who, had life not taken a dangerous turn, would have become Otomatsu’s adopted son and likely carried on in his career. We also get to know Otomatsu’s longtime friend Senji Sugiura (Nenji Kobayashi), who implores Otomatsu to take a job at a hotel he is going to run after he is retired. Senji also works for the railway, yet with his upper management position and his connections, he has been provided with a job after retirement; Otomatsu, lacking in position and notoriety, has not. It is doubtful he would have taken one anyway. The station where he works also functions as his home, and as such, it is his only link to those that he has lost. The parts of the film that involve these characters were quite moving, and I found myself hoping that someone would be able to pierce through Otomatsu’s hard shell and pull him out of his self-imposed emotional and physical isolation.
Poppoya – Railroad Man is consistently interesting and frequently involving. Throughout the film, Furuhata gets strong performances from his cast. And while the script occasionally gives them little more to say than I’m a railroader and has them say this far too much, at least it is always clear what saying this line entails. I also admired many of Furuhata’s filmmaking techniques, including his use of the four seasons to express the passage of time and the changes that take place in Otomatsu’s career. Also, throughout the film, Furuhata elects to shoot more recent scenes in color and flashbacks in mostly black and white. I say “mostly” because a few things in each flashback are colored red. The technique is similar to the one Steven Spielberg employed in Schindler’s List, and it draws the viewers’ attention to certain objects and invites us to speculate as to their significance.
However, while the technique makes it clear just when certain scenes take place in the film’s timeline, it ultimately loses its power, partly because what it indicates is so obvious early on and partly because I was hoping that I was wrong about what I suspected it indicated. I wasn’t, however, and I liked the film less because of this. After all, what’s the point of building up a film with so many realistic problems only to solve them by turning to the supernatural? It’s like saying that nothing matters – not pain, not guilt, not mental barriers built to insulate oneself from one’s own inner remorse. Apparently, what heals a lifetime of regret and guilt is a cathartic experience with a supernatural being. Sure, this is no ordinary supernatural being, and there is a degree of emotional pull to their final scene together. However, in the end, it just didn’t feel poetic or meaningful. After so much time being devoted to creating realistic characters with real problems, finding resolution in this way just felt like a cop out. (on DVD and Blu-ray)
*Poppoya – Railroad Man is in Japanese with English subtitles. The version I have was released by a company named KAM. There were far too many errors in the subtitles.