The Drudgery Train is an exploration of a young man’s stagnation in life due to a joyless childhood environment, lack of finances, and stunted educational path. His pre-determined outcome anointed at birth.
Like a homage to Scorsese classic Taxi Driver, lead character Kanta Kitamachi’s unrefined understanding of social dynamics & etiquette costs him over and over again. No matter how hard he tries, society throws him back to the scrap heap. Waiting for him to become someone else’s problem to fix.
This review of The Drudgery Train contains spoilers. The picture is currently screening online as part of Japan Society’s 21st Century Japan film series.
Kanta Kitamachi, played by actor Mirai Moriyama, is a lonely teenage day-laborer who never progressed past Junior High in The Drudgery Train. His father’s deviancy is reported on local television when Kanta is a child, irreparably fracturing his psyche. Like an iron boot eternally stomping on his spirit.
Young Kanta, his mother, and siblings are forced to flee their hometown in shame. Their family reputation forever tarnished, ripe for humiliation.
Without a steady role model or positive reenforcement of any kind, Kanta finds himself without any sort of direction in life or long term goal. Even a dream evades him. But simple, instantly obtainable pleasures do not.
Thus, Kanta trades in every last hard earned Yen at borderline Soaplands. He enjoys reading books to escape the grim reality of being a modern day serf. What does Kanta not enjoy? Paying rent.
Throughout Nobuhiro Yamashita’s film, Kanta is constantly at the mercy of his landlords. Trading in a place to live tomorrow to live it up on the town today. But can one really blame him? Kanta has been so deprived of a normal youth, he subconsciously sees rent as stealing the last of it away.
Teasing a normal life
Early in The Drudgery Train, another laborer of the same age, Kengo Kôra, takes a shine to Kanta. Kengo, played by actor Shoji Kusakabe, is impressed Kanta has been doing physical labor since the age of fourteen. Similarly, he doesn’t mock Kanta for not attending high school.
A stark contrast to the way older adults treat Kanta all movie long, constantly reminding him that he’s “Just a Junior High Graduate.” The adults literally kick Kanta (physically) when he’s at his lowest and constantly throw the word loser to brand him. Naturally, Kanta becomes hooked on having someone actually positively take any kind of interest in him. In turn, he wants to spend every last moment with his new friend.
You can tell Kanta is not used to having someone to talk to instantaneously, dropping more than a few lines of faux pas. Private details of relationships you wouldn’t really share with someone you just met and likely not in a public space. However, Kengo takes it all in stride. In fact, Kengo even assists Kanta with the girl working the front counter at his favorite book store.
Meet Yasuko Sakurai, played by actress Atsuko Maeda, a mild mannered, same age (19), book store employee. Kanta is so over the moon that Yasuko agrees to be his friend, he literally throws his arms up in the air and yells in victory in front of her. A win lap best kept for home but Kanta simply does not know any better.
Kanta learns Yasuko has a long distance boyfriend and decides to take 20 steps forward… Asking Yasuko for a handshake then attempting to lick her hand, prompting Yasuko to immediatley recoil. Kanta attempts to play off his mistake as a prank but the damage is done. Kengo would accompany Kanta back to the bookstore so he could apologize. Yasuko agreed to let it go as long as he never did it again.
This apology scheme plays out consistently in The Drudgery Train. The cycle of gambling relationships, both personal and business, then trying to makeup for it. Kanta bows and begs forgiveness for his missing rent daily, and is always saying sorry in some way or another.
One of his landlords is keen to Kanta’s tactic and tells him acting won’t get you anywhere. He just wants him out of the apartment and his life. Most would take such a sentence as a sign to change but instead Kanta puts the burden on his friend. Asking Kengo to lend him 50,000 Yen, even ask his parents for the money, for a new apartment.
Like a tune permanently on auto-loop, the same song and dance always ends up entrapping Kanta in a cocoon web of lies and usually pure jealousy.
Kanta Kitamachi’s social deficiencies catch up to him
While both Kanta and Kengo are promoted from day-laborers to work at a warehouse, Kanta struggles with machinery. Seeing Kengo’s success juxtaposed to his own meek undertaking causes Kanta to take out his frustrations on his friend. Asking Kengo for advice then in the next line accusing him of thinking that he’s too stupid to operate machinery because he’s from Junior High.
After an accident at the warehouse where a worker loses two toes, Kanta regresses, deciding to return to being a day laborer… While Kengo is further promoted at the warehouse. As a result the two lose touch because of their different social status.
Kengo begins dating a cultured college girl and has less and less time for his former friend. During a night out with the couple, Kanta lets insults fly about Kengo’s feigned interest in film. Reminding Kengo he told him he doesn’t enjoy movies.
Sabotaging both Kengo’s new relationship and his own friendship. Instead of realizing what he’d done, Kanta begs Kengo’s girlfriend to find him a girl of his own.
Kengo tells him a day later they can’t hang out anymore. Friendship lost. Desperate and lonely, Kanta heads over to Yasuko’s place, admits to loving her in an overtly forward way, and is rejected by her.
Three years later, Kanta finds himself at a bar alone, watching an old colleague achieving his dream of singing on TV. There is competition over the bar remote that soon devolves into a 2 on 1 fight… With Kanta on the losing end of the beating. After this, Kanta finds clarity in a mental break, borderline madness.
Despite being told he was too much of an uneducated loser to write all his young adult life… Kanta rushes home, where he ignores the latest landlord hassling him for overdue rent… And starts writing immediatley. Kanta finally discovered his life’s passion…
More Japan Society
– Go to Japan Society’s Film Series: 21st Century Japan – Films from 2001-2020 to watch The Drudgery Train (and many other curated Japanese feature films) right now. Japan Society is celebrating the last 20 years of Japanese cinema virtually until February 21, 2021.
– Check out our interview with Reiko Yamada on her Japan Society performance!