Independent Lens | Brakeless
Email share

Watch Monday, October 27, 2014 at midnight on WMHT TV.

On Monday, April 25, 2005, a West Japan Railway commuter train carrying 700 passengers smashed into an Osaka apartment building at 117 kilometers per hour, killing 107 people, including the driver. Official reports later concluded that the cause of the accident was the driver, who was frantically speeding because he was 80 seconds behind schedule. Weaving together personal accounts of those affected by the crash, Brakeless is a cautionary tale for a society that equates speed with progress. It examines the ways in which characteristics that are considered national virtues — punctuality and obedience to protocol — have become societal impediments and ultimately dangers to the people of Japan. Directed by Kyoko Mikaye.

Through the memories of survivors and bereaved family members, the film revisits the day of the tragedy, placing the events in the context of the country’s historical and economic development. Brakeless offers fascinating insight into the railway’s role in Japan’s post-war boom — and the dangers of cost cutting in the prolonged economic stagnation that followed. In the country’s drive for modernization, railroads were privatized, and corporations pushed for absolute efficiency. In 1987, West JR’s commuter express to Osaka took 31 minutes; by 2005, as drivers were urged to increase speed and shorten braking times, the route was reduced to 22 minutes. Even small delays in the schedule were investigated, and the possibility of stiff disciplinary penalties or outright dismissal weighed heavily on the drivers.

West JR’s corporate culture — which pushed for ever-faster timetables — also failed to recognize that it is part of human nature to make mistakes. The combination of cost-cutting measures with the belief that safety was achievable if there was never human error delayed the railroad’s investment in critical safety technology. Calling this juxtaposition of factors the “Japanese disease,” writer Kunio Yanagida argues that the train crash epitomized the national malaise he observed in post-bubble Japan.

Brakeless reveals the legacy of the accident through the eyes of those whose lives were changed forever: parents, spouses, injured college students, disabled victims, an artist who continues to create images of the disaster years later. The film raises questions about the ultimate cost of efficiency, and the human toll in a society that values ever-increasing speed.