Bullet Train cover

Review by C.J. Bunce

Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s All You Need is Kill is an example of a spectacular Japanese novel that translated perfectly to the English language and Western audiences in the movie adaptation, Edge of Tomorrow, later renamed Live. Die. Repeat.  Kotaro Isaka’s Bullet Train, initially re-titled from its original name Maria Beetle, is the next Japanese novel on its way to the big screen, not starring Tom Cruise but Brad Pitt, expected to arrive in theaters next year.  It’s not what you’d expect, which is good or bad, depending on your tastes.  Despite that evocative title, it’s surprisingly not an action thriller.  It’s billed as social satire, like the French graphic novel turned Chris Evans movie and TV series, Snowpiercer, and that’s pretty much what readers should expect from Bullet Train, the novel, arriving in its first English edition in U.S. book stores next week.  If Snowpiercer was your thing, you may want to pre-order Bullet Train now here at Amazon.

The Taking of Pelham 1-2-3, Unstoppable, Murder on the Orient Express, Strangers on a Train, The Lady Vanishes, Von Ryan’s Express, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Silver Streak, Source Code, and yes, Snowpiercer, are the top 10 movies you probably think of featuring train action (oh, and don’t forget the original action movie, 1903’s The Great Train Robbery, discussed here and remade several times, plus props are due for train flicks The Commuter and Trading Places).  In each of these, a train goes out of control, or it gets highjacked, or hit by an avalanche, someone is kidnapped or killed, or the train is the target of a terrorist attack–all the kinds of dangers that couple well with a fictional speeding train.

Bullet Train is more of a philosophical approach to a bag of criminal acts, a strange incident of two boys used as leverage by a group of criminals who all find themselves on a high-speed train across Japan, a train that really only serves to incorporate the writer’s obvious fanaticism for Thomas and Friends train cartoons into an endless string of analogies.  That’s right–it’s wall-to-wall Thomas and Friends references, which would seem to target a very small age group of readers who will know if these references have meaning.  Other references are dated and obscure–Steven Seagal was in a train story in Under Siege 2, but do most readers remember that?

Somewhere inside the novel is a thin thread about a missing bag of money–used as a true MacGuffin–and an attempt to foil a kidnapping, and another attempt to use a man’s son as hostage to get him to take certain actions.  But “international bestselling thriller”?  It’s possible something was lost in translation.

The pace of Bullet Train is nothing like a bullet.  It’s a dragging, slow-moving story with more talking heads than action sequences, although deaths to occur, but almost as afterthoughts.  Instead the novel is a writing experiment about a truly unlikeable teenager who calls himself the Prince, a self-important and reckless brat playing tricks on adults–tricks that cost lives.  A motely group of assassins speculate, ruminate, and postulate, asking inane questions like whether killing people is bad.  Snowpiercer attempted to showcase philosophical themes and questions as well, which is why this may appeal to fans of that franchise.  As a summer beach novel, this is going to be a harder sell.  Maria, the title character of the Japanese edition of the novel, is barely seen.  The five assassin types aren’t quite slapstick blunderers, but they are all inept in different, sometimes bizarre ways (the character to be played by Brad Pitt is serially unlucky, to the point that he can barely function).  Manipulation-how easy it is to manipulate others, and how quickly followers will blindly follow and take inappropriate actions for a leader who is a moron–is a key theme.

Simply by skimming the film adaptation’s cast list, it’s obvious that the novel will need to be heavily revised before translating Bullet Train to the big screen.  The key character in the novel–the young teenage boy called the Prince–is played by Joey King, a woman in her twenties.  Not surprisingly Japanese culture factors heavily into the characters’ motivations, philosophies, and questions, and the entire Japanese slate of characters is instead cast for the movie with the likes of Brad Pitt, Sandra Bullock, Michael Shannon, Zazie Beetz, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Brian Tyree Henry, and Logan Lerman (the same thing that happened with Edge of Tomorrow)–with only Japanese stars Masi Oka and Hiroyuki Sanada so far listed as playing unspecified characters in the film.

Generational clashes, searching for answers to questions you may never have thought to ask from a group of… philosopher killers?  Bullet Train is available next week here at Amazon in hardcover and available now for pre-order, from Abrams Books’ imprint The Overlook Press.