Gone Off the Rails

Posted on Wednesday, February 08, 2012, under ,

The other day I am riding on the train to Osaka. The train is at full speed when it suddenly starts braking and hooting and the sound of something like broken glass under our feet is heard. It feels and sounds a bit like your bicycle skidding on the gravel (now I wish I had my IC to record it). After a noisy clutter, a sudden calm. Our train has halted on the Aikawa bridge. It is a sunny, crisp winter day. Ducks are motionless specks on the river surface. Very little moves, outside or inside the carriage. After about a minute we see a driver (presumably) and a young woman in uniform run past our window towards the rear of the train.

Inside, there is pregnant silence. A single young woman breaks it: she rings up her employer to announce her lateness (talking on the mobile phone on Japanese trains is rare and is normally met with mute contempt). Commuters try to avert each other’s eyes, perhaps unwilling to recognize traces of concern. But the more one tries not to notice the more perceptive one becomes. So I end up detecting those slight body movements which are inevitably interpreted as anxiety tics, being somewhat perturbed myself.

Ten or so minutes pass. Passengers are fidgety and growing tense, expecting to hear some sort of nerve-soothing announcement from the conductor. The driver and the same young woman in uniform run past the window in the opposite direction, towards the front of the train. The announcement finally comes on. It is rather a brief one, informing us of a ‘human accident’ – jinshin jiko. This phrase is commonly used in Japan and it usually refers to a suicide on the tracks. If there indeed was one, they must have promptly dealt with the body. But how? The train nevertheless moves on to everyone’s relief. The accident though has upset both the driver’s timetable and the driver himself, as the train horn switches to its loudest mode and is frequently applied for no apparent reason for the rest of the journey.

People throwing themselves under trains is commonplace in Japan. On average up to thousand such deaths each year. These acts are normally considered a public nuisance, if not a taboo. They go unreported in the press. The train companies can claim a compensation fee from the family of a person who committed suicide for disruption in service. Most people prefer not to think about it, and are more likely to give way to their petty annoyances about the delays that these unfortunate acts inevitably bring.

As for the ‘suiciders’ (why has this word not gone mainstream I wonder), these people are supposed to be considered failures. More often than not they are regarded as a disgrace to their friends and families. One of the most common cited reasons for suicide is people’s inability to cope with the pressure at work (the pressure to succeed is probably more conspicuous in Japan than anywhere else), which can lead to one losing their job and the overwhelming feeling of insecurity and unworthiness as a result.

So I got to thinking about success and failure, and that perhaps the line between a success and a failure is much thinner than most people like to think. Who knows how many people who consider themselves successful are in fact potential failures, how many of us unbiased train commuters are potential suicide cases? Is the old adage true then, that failure and success are on the opposite sides of the same coin? Who or what has exactly gone off the rails here? The felones-de-se? The train driver gone berserk with his horn? The thick-skinned society? Or me, writing this rubbish? As Bob Dylan sings on Blood on the Tracks, ‘Everything is a little upside down’. Almost nothing is what it seems to be.

All this talk brings me to two of the most famous fictionalized train suicides: Anna Karenina’s and Celia Johnson’s in Brief Encounter. Actually only the former one is a suicide, the second a rather glorious, failed attempt. The 1935 version of Anna Karenina with Greta Garbo is still the most satisfying one. If ever an actress’s eyes were so expressive!!

The coffee shop scene in Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945) on the other hand never fails to lure a tear out of my eye.

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