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Brakeless (2014)

Brakeless / Bungalow Town Productions for BBC, ITVS, NHK, IKON and DR

(UK / US / Japan / Netherlands / Denmark)

Winner of the 2014 Peabody Award:

Rarely do we see a documentary running under an hour which takes a complex subject and examines it from every conceivable angle, yet does full justice to all its concerns and gives an almost total understanding of all the issues. Such a work is Kyoko Miyake’s Brakeless. It’s a film about the perils of speed that seems unhurried. It covers all the bases, and then some. Examining the reasons behind the 2005 crash of a West Japan Railways commuter train, which resulted in 107 deaths, the film places the event firmly into its historical, economic and socio-cultural context, while also giving a detailed, second-by-second account of the train’s journey that fateful day and the shocking reasons behind the driver’s actions. The testimonies of survivors are illustrated by delicate drawings and animations, which render the horror of the eventual impact indelibly, and the suffering of the bereaved as they search for answers is movingly and respectfully conveyed. Above all, it is about the nature of contemporary Japanese society, yet has lessons for us all. For an exemplary piece of documentary storytelling, Brakeless receives a Peabody Award.

On Monday April 25th 2005, a West Japan Railway (West JR) commuter train crashed into an apartment building and killed 107 people when a driver tried to catch up with an 80-second delay. Since the accident, the official committee report has concluded that the direct cause of the accident was over-speeding and West JR have agreed to pay compensation for the victims and changed the timetable. However, the fundamental question has remained unanswered - what made the driver risk so many lives for an 80-second delay?

Piecing together personal accounts of those affected by the train crash, Brakeless looks at a society which does not seem to know when to stop its pursuit of efficiency. It examines the way in which the characteristics that are usually considered the national virtues - punctuality and loyalty to protocol - have become societal impediments and ultimately, dangers to the people of Japan.

The film revisits the train journey and follows the aftermath through the eyes of the survivors. What happened on the day is examined in light of the historical and economic development in post-war Japan. It is a story about modernisation gone too far and a cautionary tale from a country that is cutting corners in all the wrong places in a prolonged economic stagnation. After the privatisation in 1987, West JR shortened the journey time of the route of the accident in order to be faster than its rival railway companies which forced the drivers to reduce the time for braking, stopping and driving. What helped accelerate this process was the cultural attitude which does not recognise that it is part of the human nature to make mistakes. Safety was considered achievable if there is no human error which delayed the investment in safety technology.

The film considers the legacy of the accident through the eye of those whose lives were changed forever. The lasting impact in their lives and the way each deals with their grief poses a question for the wider society that is becoming ever faster. Through the lens of a catastrophic train crash in Japan, Brakeless considers the ultimate cost of efficiency.

Producer: Rachel Wexler, Felix Matschke Director: Kyoko Miyake
Cinematographer: Kozo Natsuumi

Sakata Memorial Foundation Award 2014
Official Selection, Sheffield Doc Fest, 2014