Director Jonathan Teplitzsky’s film The Railway Man opens in theaters on Friday, April 11, and one of the film’s stars, Hiroyuki Sanada, says everyone must see it.
Based on the true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army officer who is haunted by the torture he endured as a prisoner of war, The Railway Man shows the brutal reality of a Japanese labor camp in Thailand during World War II. Told in flashbacks, the film traces how Lomax, played by Colin Firth (and Jeremy Irvine as a young soldier), continues to suffer decades after the war’s end and finds it hard to cope with everyday life. This prompts his wife, Patti (Nicole Kidman), to help Lomax confront his demons as well as the man responsible for tormenting him.
That man is Sanada’s character, Takashi Nagase, an Imperial Japanese Army interpreter who was one of the officers in charge of the construction of the Thai-Burma Railway, also known as the “Death Railway,” a 258-mile link between Bangkok and Rangoon, Burma (present-day Yangon, Myanmar). The Japanese Army forced Asian civilians and Allied POWs, including British, Australian, Dutch, and American soldiers, to build the railway, which was the subject of the 1957 Oscar award-winning film The Bridge on the River Kwai.
Some of the scenes in The Railway Man are uncomfortable to watch, as the laborers braved savage living conditions, and the Japanese Army officers beat the men mercilessly, including Lomax. The Scottish-born Lomax was in his early twenties when he and thousands of his fellow British soldiers surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore in 1942. From there he was taken to Kanchanaburi, where he was tortured on the orders of Nagase.
Years later when Lomax discovered Nagase was still alive, he was initially driven to seek revenge by killing him. However, their confrontation turned into reconciliation, and the two men, who met in Thailand in 1993, formed a friendship that lasted almost twenty years. Nagase, whose guilt over his actions during World War II led him to become a Buddhist priest and to finance a Buddhist temple near the bridge, died in 2011. Lomax died the following year at age 93.
“When I read the script, I was shocked,” Sanada told filmmaker and cinema scholar Joel Neville Anderson after a special screening of The Railway Man at Japan Society on April 6. “I didn’t know [the torture by the Japanese Army] happened. I didn’t learn this in school. So I decided to take the role because people need to see this and know this happened.”
The veteran 53-year-old Japanese actor who starred in The Twilight Samurai said one of the challenges of working on The Railway Man was that “Colin [Firth] and I had to condense their meeting and reconciliation into thirty minutes.”
Sanada relished the opportunity to work with Firth and an international crew. Since 2003 when he appeared in The Last Samurai, Sanada made it his goal to work on multi-national productions, and he has gone on to star in The Wolverine, 47 Ronin, and American television series Helix and the upcoming Steven Spielberg thriller Extant.
Joining Sanada at the Q&A was his 47 Ronin co-star Tanroh Ishida, the young actor who plays the younger version of Nagase in The Railway Man. Ishida trained in the traditional Japanese theater of Noh and Kyogen, and he studied at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, where he is still based. Living in London, Ishida was familiar with the story of Eric Lomax, but had not felt the impact of the war’s brutality until he read the script.
“As serious as the subject is, it was the friendliest set,” Ishida says of the filming of The Railway Man.
Ishida first met Sanada during 47 Ronin. “We said one day we would work together on a film where he will play my father, and I will be his son,” says Ishida, 27. “After I got the role [in The Railway Man] I emailed him and told him we will be playing the same person.”
They passionately play two sides of a person who as a young man was loyal to his country during a time of war and who searched for atonement in the decades following it. Sanada would not talk politics or speculate on how the Japanese would react to seeing their portrayals of Nagase, but he said simply, “People should watch the film, be entertained by it, and enjoy. And then, THINK.”