The Japanese Author Behind ‘Bullet Train’ Is OK That the Film Isn’t So Japanese

SENDAI, Japan — Kotaro Isaka, one of Japan’s most popular crime thriller writers, describes himself as a homebody. He rarely leaves Sendai, the city in northeastern Japan where he lives, and many of his books are there.

Yet when his 2010 novel “Maria Beetle” was adapted into “Bullet Train,” a Hollywood action movie starring Brad Pitt, Brian Tyree Henry and Joey King which opens in the United States on August 5, he embraced the largely Western cast and very stylized, hyper-neon setting that can perhaps be described as Japan-adjacent.

Writing “Maria Beetle,” a thriller about several assassins trapped on the same bullet train, Isaka created a motley crew of characters who “aren’t real people, and maybe they’re not even Japanese. “said Isaka, 51. during a recent interview in the living room of a hotel restaurant not far from his home and a stone’s throw from the local shinkansen – or high-speed train – station. The novel, originally published in Japan, debuted in English last year.

With its fast-paced plot, colorful assassins, high body count, sadistic teen villain, and cheeky humor, Isaka always dreamed the novel could make an ideal Hollywood movie. His original Japanese background, he said, didn’t matter much.

“I have no desire to want people to understand Japanese literature or culture,” Isaka said. “It’s not like I understand much about Japan either.”

Turning Isaka’s novel into an American-style action film with a mixed cast from the United States, Britain and Japan was both a creative license and a business decision. Despite the popularity of manga graphic novels and anime outside of Japan, few live-action movies or TV shows with all-Japanese actors have become international hits in recent years. Unlike South Korea’s global phenoms like “Squid Game” and “Parasite,” Japan has been acclaimed by art house films like recent Oscar winner “Drive My Car” and “Shoplifters.” , awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes, but rarely successful at the international box office.

There have already been complaints in the Asian American media about whitewashing, though the cast of “Bullet Train” includes black, Latino and Japanese actors. David Inoue, executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, told AsAmNews that “this film seeks to affirm the belief that Asian actors in lead roles cannot wear a blockbuster, despite all the recent evidence to the contrary, to start with ‘Crazy Rich Asians'”. and extending to ‘Shang-Chi’.

The fact that Isaka himself viewed his characters as ethnically malleable “reassured us to honor his Japanese soul while giving the film a chance to have big, giant movie stars and make it work on a global scale. “said Sanford Panitch, a president. from Sony Pictures Entertainment Motion Picture Group, the studio behind “Bullet Train.”

For anyone who has lived through the strict pandemic border closures in Japan, the presence of so many non-Japanese on a train supposed to travel from Tokyo to Kyoto is shocking and makes it clear that the film bears little resemblance to real life.

“Bullet Train” director David Leitch and its screenwriter, Zak Olkewicz, said they wanted to preserve some of the novel’s most important characters – three generations of one Japanese family. “People who haven’t necessarily seen the movie will be surprised to find that the plot is pretty much about the Japanese characters and their storylines getting that resolution,” Olkewicz said, although the characters aren’t the focus of the film.

Yet even in Isaka’s novel there are Western references: one of the assassins is obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine, a detail that is carried over into the film.

“We were all very conscious and wanted to make it super inclusive and international,” said Leitch, who directed “Deadpool 2” and “Atomic Blonde” and served as executive producer on two “John Wick” movies. The diversity of the cast, he said, “just shows you the strength of the original writer’s work and how this could be a story that could transcend race anyway.”

At one point, the filmmakers considered changing the setting. “We had conversations like ‘maybe this could be Europe, maybe this could be another part of Asia,'” Leitch said. collided?”

In the end, he decided: “Tokyo is as international a city as anywhere.” (With key plot points depending on whether the train arrives on time at various stops along the route, Isaka said, “we can only think of a Japanese bullet train” .)

Leitch had hoped to shoot parts of the film in Japan, but the pandemic made that impossible, so he leaned further into a fantasy vision created on an American soundstage. Upon seeing it, Isaka said he was grateful that the story’s extreme violence was removed from any realistic framework. “I’m relieved that it’s set in the future of Japan or like a city in Gotham,” he said. “It’s a world people don’t know about.”

In Japan, Isaka has published more than 40 novels – many of which are bestsellers – and his agents hope the notoriety of “Bullet Train” will help elevate his work among English-speaking readers who already have an affinity for Japanese entertainment at home. through manga, anime or Haruki Murakami, the Japanese novelist who is a literary star in the West.

The son of art gallery owners in Chiba, east of Tokyo, Isaka grew up reading crime novels and thrillers, including translations of novels by Agatha Christie and Ellery Queen. He moved to Sendai to study law at Tohoku University, where he began writing short stories.

After graduating, he took a job as a systems engineer but got up before 5 a.m. most mornings to write fiction. Because the apartment he shared with his wife was too small for a separate writing space, he sometimes retired with his laptop to a stone bench along the river near his apartment, tapping out stories along the way. evening after work.

In 2000, her debut novel, “Audubon’s Prayer,” which features a talking scarecrow, a cat that can predict the weather, and a childhood bully-turned-policeman, won the Shincho Mystery Club Award for Newcomers.

Two years later, with his wife’s encouragement, he cut the cord to a monthly paycheck. “I thought if I didn’t quit my job and focus,” he said, “I can’t write something great.”

Several of his novels have been adapted into Japanese films, although none of them have been released in the United States. His works in translation are popular in China and South Korea.

Even before his novels were translated into English, Japanese critics detected an American – or at least Hollywood – sensibility in his work.

The way the characters speak in some of his novels is “almost like he’s copying American movie-style dialogue into Japanese,” said literary critic Atsushi Sasaki. “When you watch the dubbed version of Hollywood movies, the Japanese people can seem very contrived, and that’s how I always imagined his books and what his characters were saying.”

Since Isaka’s work was virtually unknown to English-speaking readers, Yuma Terada and Ryosuke Saegusa, the founders of CTB, a film and literary production agency that represents Isaka, consolidated the copyrights of his novels and commissioned the translation of a handful of them, hoping to cast him as a literary cousin of Murakami.

Sam Malissa, who translated “Maria Beetle,” as well as another novel, “Three Assassins,” which is part of a loose trilogy and has also been published in English in Britain and the United States, said that the crazy energy of Isaka’s work could help push the boundaries of Western stereotypes about Japanese literature. Too often, he said, audiences reading in English conceive of Japanese fiction as akin to Ukiyo-e woodblock painting with a “koan-like inscrutability,” Malissa said.

Terada, a former financier, and Saegusa, a longtime editor at Kodansha, one of Japan’s largest publishing houses that has published several of Isaka’s novels, began buying Malissa’s “Bullet Train” manuscript. in several studios but initially found no takers. After Terada and Saegusa wrapped up the plot in a five-page synopsis, three studios bid, and Sony ultimately won. (Terada and Saegusa are the film’s executive producers.)

Shortly after “Maria Beetle” was cast in the film, the translated novel was sold to Harvill Secker, a London-based unit of Penguin Books.

Liz Foley, the editor, read the manuscript while on vacation at the beach. “Suddenly I was transported to this world that felt slightly off,” she said. Although the book had been picked up by Sony at the time, neither Leitch nor Pitt had yet been attached to the project.

So far, Foley said, the English edition of “Bullet Train” – which has been renamed from the original – has not been a best-seller, but has had “very good sales”.

The American publisher Overlook Press, a unit of Abrams Books, published it last August in the United States, where it was met with positive reviews. In NPR’s “Fresh Air”, reviewer John Powers described “Bullet Train” as “the irresponsible pleasure of pure entertainment”. Both publishers release tie-in editions to the film in hopes of capturing some afterglow of the film.

Foreign literature is a notoriously tough market in English. But Philip Gabriel, Murakami’s longtime translator who has translated three Isaka novels, hopes the film adaptation of “Bullet Train” will attract interest from other English-language publishers. “Name recognition will at least get publishers to say, ‘Hey, let’s look at those other Isaka novels again,'” Gabriel said.

Outside of English-language markets, Isaka’s work is increasingly being treated to screen: her novel “The Fool of the End” is set to be made into a Korean drama series for Netflix.

Isaka said that just as his work jumps onto the world stage, he can no longer reliably meet the six-page daily writing goal he set for himself when he started out as a novelist.

“I’ve already written a lot of what I’m supposed to write,” he lamented.

He said his wife, who two decades ago gave him permission to quit his job to write full-time, recently told him to focus on producing a good novel in his 50s.

“I feel lighter now,” he said.

Hikari Hidacontributed report.

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