Midnight Bus [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray ALL - Japan - Amuse Soft
Review written by and copyright: James-Masaki Ryan (10th November 2018).
The Film

"Midnight Bus" 「ミッドナイト・バス」 (2017)

Riichi (played by Taizo Harada) is a bus driver who operates long distance drives between Tokyo and Niigata on midnight runs. In Tokyo he frequents a cafe run by Shiho (played by Manami Konishi), a divorcee with whom he is having a romantic relationship. Riichi is also a divorcee who raised his two children as a single father. The two grown children are in their early twenties now: His son Reiji (played by Ko Nanase) suddenly returns to Niigata after quitting his job in Tokyo with no plans for the future. His daughter (played by Wakana Aoi) forms a pop idol group with friends and is concentrating on her cutesy character while also contemplating about marriage to her boyfriend. There is already complication with Riichi having a long distance relationship with Shiho and having things go to the next step becoming awkward when the kids suddenly appear. And things start to become even more complicated when Riichi's ex-wife Miyuki (played by Mirai Yamamoto) comes back to Niigata for the first time in 16 years, with some distressing news about her father.

"Midnight Bus" is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Yuki Ibuki. Filmmaker Masao Takehisa was a fan of the novel and felt it could be great for adaptation to screen, though many hurdles had to be overcome with financing and development for the melodrama. In addition, Takehisa had been absent from the director's seat from filmmaking for a long time, with his last film in the director's chair was his directorial debut "Jump" in 2003. Although he had many credits prior to the film as an assistant director, his output had been extremely limited in the 2000s. Multiple projects cancelled or falling apart at early stages, directing "Midnight Bus" would be a major comeback for the director. Financing came through with the help of the local Niigata newspaper Niigata Nippo which was looking for a project to celebrate its 140th anniversary. The newspaper would help with local promotion, coverage of the production and having exclusive interviews and articles, which was fitting since the book and the film's location was in Niigata prefecture, and many of the details within the novel was kept for the adaptation to screen. Not only the setting, but also creating the fictional bus company Shiratori, most of the characters and their quirks, and basic plot details were all kept as is with very little changed to the core story through the screenplay written by Masato Kato.

While it could fall easily under the umbrella of tourism films that showcase various areas with the help of the local tourism board and the local newspaper with financing, "Midnight Bus" for the most part puts the family dynamic and relationships first. There are exceptions of course with the family trip to Sado Island and places such as the swan lake being well known places in Niigata. For the characters, Riichi is a fairly positive soul who went through quite a lot through his divorce. Giving up his established job in Tokyo to moving back to his hometown and becoming a long distance bus driver, and having to support his emotional hurt two young children. The daughter having extreme bitterness towards her mother after all the years without her and yet able to pull off staged smiles for her stagework. The son having issues connecting emotionally to others and without a sense of direction in life. The two women of Riichi's lie - the ex wife Miyuki and his current love Shiho are the most complex characters. Miyuki was and is emotionally vulnerable, unable to deal with real life stress during their marriage and also putting her current marriage on the line. Shiho is also emotionally brittle as she had once gone through a divorce but with Riichi's life becoming more complicated with the return of the ex wife into the picture, she questions her role in the relationship altogether. Obviously Riichi gets the most attention in the film being the center character, but he is not the scene stealer. Each of the characters are given just enough subtleties in their characterizations and quirks to make them individuals. Though some of them, such as Riichi's bus driver coworkers seem comically unreal rather than the main characters, trying to somehow outdo each other for the screentime. But these kinds of characters appear very little in the overall film. With that said, one of the drawbacks is the runtime of over two and a half hours. There are quite a few scenes such as with Riichi and Miyuki that go far on too long and conversations seem to repeat themselves often. The scene which has a cover of the Bette Midler song "The Rose" sung by Aoi Teshima is a fairly lengthy dramatic scene that reveals a lot, but considering how many previous scenes hinted, the impact seems to be lessened. The aforementioned Sado Island scene felt more of a tourism ad than a core part of the movie. But even with the issues, the film altogether has a very rich and heartbreaking core at the center.

Taizo Harada previously worked with director Takehisa on his debut feature "Jump" in the lead, which was the first film lead for the actor, who at the time was far better known for his wacky comedy antics with his trio Neptune - a common fixture on Japanese television. Although he did parts in television dramas as well, "Jump" was a striking mystery-romance film that proved he was more than just a funnyman. It's unfortunate that "Jump" was mostly overlooked by the masses even with having acclaim. Harada continued in both comedy routines on stage and television as well as taking dramatic roles, but the option to be able to work together again with Takehisa was an immediate choice for him. Harada stated that when Takehisa offered a role, he immediately said "OK" without knowing anything about the script or which role he would play. Harada even acquired a large vehicle license to drive the bus without stunt drivers or processed shots and committed to the role fully. Cinematographer Osame Maruike who also lensed "Jump" returned to work with the director for "Midnight Bus". It is not at all a flashy film with mostly static shots and subtle quiet tracking shots, reminiscent of the melodramas of Yasujiro Ozu or Mikio Naruse, making the characters the focus rather than the camera.

"Midnight Bus" is a stellar comeback for the director with a wonderful cast that emotionally hits as well as give a few laughs along the way. The awkward scenes such as the family meeting Ayana's fiancee's family, Shiho trying to surprise Kiichi in Niigata, and other scenes do give chuckles to counteract the dramatic scenes. While the story discusses the increasing rate of divorce, the hardships of single parents, the lack of commitment and the childish ways of grown children, the growing number of elderly people - all are serious social issues in Japan yet the film never feels preachy towards a single one, and instead taking things one by one. The film premiered on November 2, 2017 at the Tokyo International Film Festival for a special screening. It later opened theatrically in Niigata on January 20, 2018 and a week later in wide release across Japan. The film was not exactly a major smash, but it did have a significantly long run in Niigata. Internationally the film was also screened at festivals in New York and Beijing. Critically it was mixed with some criticizing the pacing and length and some praising the performances. It took quite a long time for it to receive a home video release, coming ten months after the theatrical opening.

Note this is a region ALL Blu-ray + region 2 NTSC DVD set

Video

Amuse Soft presents the film in the theatrical 1.85:1 aspect ratio in 1080p, in the AVC MPEG-4 codec. Being a fairly recent film shot in HD one would expect a pristine image and pristine transfer. True, the image does look pinsharp for the most part but there are a few issues to be pointed out. On the plus side, colors look excellent, from the yellow lit midnight highway lamps to the neon lights of Tokyo down to the snow covered landscapes of Niigata, it's beautifully lit and the colors certainly look wonderful. Detail is sharp, the framing is great, but on the negative side there were a few scenes that featured macroblocking with solid walls, such as in "The Rose" scene.

The bigger issue though, is what seems to be an encoding error right at the start of the film. At 1:28 when Shiho steps on the bus, the entire film's image and audio freezes for a second, resuming with a cut to the bus moving. This is not a hiccup with the Blu-ray as going frame by frame, the shot of Shiho frozen for multiple frames is encoded in the video. I saw the film screened about a year ago and this was not part of the film. This was tested on the initial disc I received as well as a replacement Blu-ray. Amuse Soft has been notified of the issue. If Amuse Soft issues an updated disc we will let readers know.

UPDATE
A reply came from Amuse Soft and they stated that the moment the film freezes after Shiho steps on the bus was what was featured in the theatrical version of the film and the Blu-ray and DVD reflect the theatrical version, not an encoding error. I personally do not recall this as part of the film and it is jarring to the point that I would have taken note of it, and it was not written in my theatrical notes. Regardless, this is apparently part of the film and so there will be no replacement.

The film's runtime is 156:32.

Audio

Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Japanese Audio Descriptive DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 stereo

There are two audio tracks, the original theatrical 5.1 track and an audio descriptive track, both in Japanese. Being a dialogue heavy melodrama, the voices come through the center speaker, while the memorably quiet score and the sounds of the highway in the bus scenes use the surround channels effectively. The volume is a bit on the low side in comparison to other 5.1 tracks so the volume should be turned up a tad bit on this Blu-ray edition. As stated before, the frozen shot at the 1:28 mark the error is present in the 5.1 track where the entire soundtrack suddenly drops out. Interestingly on the audio descriptive track, the narrator's narration continues during the frozen part while the film audio is blank, making it clear this is not a skip on the disc but frozen frames and audio dropout encoded into the Blu-ray. Again, if Amuse Soft issues an updated disc we will let readers know.

There are optional English and Japanese HoH subtitles for the main feature. The English subtitles are well timed and free of spelling errors, though there are some hiccups in words sounding a bit unnatural though though everything is technically grammatically correct.

Extras

The special edition is a Blu-ray+DVD package with the film on the Blu-ray and extras divided out on the Blu-ray and the DVD. The Blu-ray is region ALL while the DVD is region 2 NTSC.


Blu-ray

Deleted Scenes (12:12)
A collection of deleted scenes including a bath scene with the bus drivers, scenes on the family trip and ferry, extended shots of Magical Wonder Girls on stage, and others. None of the scenes are particularly missed or give any additions to the plot or characterizations.
in 1080p AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 with no subtitles

Trailer (1:58)
The excellent original trailer is presented here.
in 1080i 60hz AVC MPEG-4, in 1.85:1, in Japanese DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 with no subtitles


DISC TWO (DVD)

"Midnight Bus: Special Talk Event" (88:05)
In this bonus feature, director Masao Takehisa, cinematographer Osame Maruike, and actors Taizo Harada and Mirai Yamamoto have a chat with a moderator in August 2018, nearly seven months after the theatrical opening of the film. During the talks some behind the scenes footage and on set interviews are edited in. They remember about the location shooting, the weather, the food, the color palate, "The Rose" scene, Harada and Takeshisa reuniting for work after a year gap, and much more.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Tokyo International Film Festival Stage Greeting (15:35)
Actors Taizo Harada, Mirai Yamamoto, Manami Konishi and Ko Nanase, composer Ikuko Kawai, and director Masao Takeshita appear in front of the premiere audience in November 2017. Yamamoto injured her leg not too long before the film festival so she is in a wheelchair. Without spoilers they discuss about shooting in Niigata and a little about the production. The camera operator for this extra is downright terrible, with shaky and sometimes out of focus shots, pointing the camera in the wrong direction, and not a good sense of framing. At least the audio is fine, coming from the direct feed of the microphones.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, in Japanese Dolby Digital 2.0 with no subtitles

Tokyo International Film Festival Press Conference (28:33)
Also taking place during the same film festival, the panel is made of executive producer Sumio Hoshino, actors Taizo Harada, Mirai Yamamoto, Manami Konish and Ko Nanase, composer Ikuko Kawai, and director Masao Takeshita. Each person give their introductions, including Harada with his trademark singalong introduction for those that know his comedy routines, plus some questions about the film's setting, production, interpretation of the book, and more. The press conference is conducted in Japanese with an interpreter speaking English just after questions and comments. Although there is some editing, causing some of the interpretations to be cut short or cut entirely.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, in Japanese with English interpretation with no subtitles

"Nama+Toku" UX Niigata TV 21 program with shooting locations (10:55)
In this except from a local TV program, locations seen in the film are scouted out, including the cafe, the bridge, and the swan lake. The staff also awkwardly recreate the scenes for the cameras.
in anamorphic 1.78:1, in Japanese with English interpretation with no subtitles

"Naji Latte" BSN Niigata TV program with staff and cast interview (7:42)
In this excerpt from a local TV program, actors Taizo Harada and Mirai Yamamoto and director Masao Takeshita are interviewed about shooting in Niigata and discussions of the characters, which was aired just before the theatrical opening.


24 Page Special Booklet
The booklet includes an introduction, a short side story to "Midnight Bus" written by the novelist Yuki Ibuki, and an "Arcive" (sic) which includes Niigata Nippo newspaper articles chronicling the making of and release of the film, a location map, recipes of some of the food featured, Magical Wonder Girls' goods and lyrics to their song "À bientôt". The newspaper text is incredibly tiny to read and should have been included as DVD-ROM PDFs rather than cramming so much into a small booklet. All text is in Japanese.


150 minutes of extras do seem like a generous amount, though there is a bit too much repeated information. The stage greeting is surface level without depth, and the 88 minute "Talk" extra maybe should have been divided as a talk event extra as one and a behind the scenes documentary for another. It would have also been nice to hear a commentary, but none is offered.


Below is the Japanese theatrical trailer with a special introduction by the cast for promoting the Blu-ray/DVD edition plus a promotional clip from Amuse Soft which showcases clips from the Blu-ray/DVD bonus features.



Packaging

The Blu-ray and DVD are packaged in a DVD-size keep case housed in a slipcase. The Blu-ray has Riichi and Shiho's dog Oide printed on the disc and the DVD is cleverly designed with the Magical Wonder Girls' clock artwork.

Overall

"Midnight Bus" is an excellent melodrama with stellar performances that may be a little overlong but is a warm and welcome return for director Masao Takehisa. The Japanese Special Edition Blu-ray is English friendly for the main feature and has lengthy special features, though much of it is surface level but still comes as recommended.

The Film: B+ Video: B Audio: B Extras: B- Overall: B

 


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