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High price to pay for efficiency and speed

BRAKELESS (BBC4) HHHII

THERE'S a lot to be said in favour of laziness, inefficiency, forgetfulness and bad timekeeping, qualities that some of us possess in abundance. Okay, so you'll never turn up for an appointment at the time you said you would, which has a habit of infuriating people, but at least you'll turn up sooner or later.

More importantly, you'll turn up alive, which is a distinct advantage.

The people interviewed in the Storyville documentary Brakeless didn't make their appointments on time, because the Western Japan Railway commuter train in which they were travelling derailed and crashed into an apartment block in Osaka one sunny April morning in 2005.

Actually, "derailed and crashed" is far too mild a way of describing what occurred.

The train wrapped itself around a corner of the building and crumpled like a beer can. But at least these people were alive – if, in the case of one 38-year-old woman, physically and mentally impaired – to tell the tale.

Another 106 passengers, as well as the young driver who was pushing the train beyond the speed limits of safety and common sense, weren't so lucky.

Nor were the loved ones left bereft by one of the biggest rail crashes in Japanese history.

One man, whose wife and sister-in-law died in the disaster, initially told people his absent wife was away on a cruise. "After a year or two, it began to feel ridiculous," he said.

UNSETTLING

Another man, an artist who was a passenger on the train, appears to have spent the eight years since that awful day writing, painting and making models in an effort to understand and explain what happened. Whether he's doing this for himself or for others remained unclear.

People do odd things in grief or in the aftermath of a trauma, yet his behaviour wasn't the most mysterious thing about this strange and unsettling film.

Most documentaries about tragedies that result in large-scale loss of human life tend to focus on the awfulness of the event itself.

Brakeless certainly did that. The recollections of the survivors, including a young woman who spoke of seeing blood seeping through a crack and forming a puddle on the floor near her feet and a man who described a fellow passenger's face being "split in two", were properly harrowing, as was the archive news footage. But it was as much a forensic examination of the Japanese national character as anything else.

The train was travelling at an insanely high speed when it went off the tracks. The driver was running a mere 80 seconds behind schedule and was desperate to make up the difference.

His employers had previously disciplined him for his tardiness – a process that involved him spending a day writing essays of regret and having to ask a superior's permission to use the toilet – and warned that if he was late one more time he'd lose his job.

The need to be the fastest at everything is, suggested writer Kunio Yanagida, an obsession ingrained in the Japanese psyche since the Tokyo Olympics of 1964, an event designed to show how the country had risen from the rubble of World War Two.

He described it as the "Japanese disease", and it's never more virulent than in the highly competitive railway industry, where even a one-second delay is noted down on a driver's record and porters are reprimanded for not pointing in the correct manner.

"Our passengers also expect us to be fast and punctual," said a driver over shots of a WJR employee apologetically handing commuters printed notifications of even the slightest delays in the service. "Is this really how we should be?"

The year of the Olympics was also when Japan unveiled its first bullet train, which had a maximum speed of 210kph. Today, bullet trains routinely reach speeds of over 500kph.

It's a culture of speed, efficiency and punctuality at any cost. Including, it would appear, lives.


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