'Bullet Train' is a big screen action thriller with a global soul. The writer behind 'Bullet Train' is OK that the film version isn't quite so Japanese.

Kotaro Isaka, one of Japan's most popular crime thriller writers, is a self-described homebody. He rarely leaves Sendai, the city in northeast Japan where he lives, and many of his books are set there.

YET when his 2010 novel, ''Maria Beetle'' was adapted into ''Bullet Train,'' a Hollywood action film starring Brad Pitt, Brian Tyree Henry and Joey King, he embraced the largely Western cast and highly stylized, hyper-neon setting that can perhaps best be described as Japan-adjacent.

In writing ''Maria Beetle,'' a thriller about multiple assassins trapped on the same high-speed train, Isaka created a motley crew of characters who are ''not real people, and maybe they're not even Japanese,'' Isaka, 51, said during a recent interview in the lounge of a hotel restaurant not far from his home and just steps from the local shinkansen - or bullet train - station. 

The novel, which was originally published in Japan, debuted in English last year.

With its fast-paced plot, colorful assassins, high body counts, sadistic teenage villain and cheeky humor, Isaka always dreamed the novel might make an ideal Hollywood movie. It's original movie context, he said, did not matter much.

''I don't have any feeling of wanting to understand Japanese literature or culture,'' Isaka said. '' It's not like I understand that much about Japan, either.''

Turning Isaka's novel into an American-style action movie with a mixed cast from the United States, Britain and Japan was part creative license, part business decision.

Despite the popularity of manga graphic novels and anime cartoons outside Japan, few live-action movies or television shows with all Japanese casts have become international hits in recent years.

Unlike global phenomena from South Korea like ''Squid Game'' and ''Parasite,'' Japan has enjoyed art-house acclaim for films like the recent Oscar winner ''Drive My Car'' and the Cannes Palme d'Or-anointed ''Shoplifters,'' but rarely box office success.

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, the executive director of the Japanese American Citizens League, told AsAmNews that ''this movie seeks to affirm the belief that Asian actors in the leading roles cannot carry a blockbuster, despite all the recent evidence indicating otherwise, beginning with ''Crazy Rich Asians'' and extending to 'Shang-Chi.' ''

That Isaka himself regarded his characters as ethnically malleable ''gave us comfort in honouring its Japanese soul, but at the same time giving the movie a chance to get big giant movie stars and have it work on a global scale,'' said Sanford Panitch, a president of 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 people on a train supposedly traveling from Tokyo to Kyoto is jarring, and makes clear the movie bears little resemblance to real life.

David Leitch, the director of ''Bullet Train,'' 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 out that the plot pretty much kind of is about the Japanese characters and their story lines getting that resolution,'' Olkewicz said, though the characters aren't at the center 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 preserved in the movie.    

The World Students Society thanks author Motoko Rich.


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