I feel certain everyone has had one of those “midnight movie” experiences where you’re looking for something to watch for a few minutes before turning in for the night, but stumble across something so weird that you wind up sticking with it all the way till the end credits, only to wonder if what you just watched was actually real at all. I had pretty much that experience last night with Take the X Train, a bizarre short movie from the golden era of high-budget 1980s anime. The high production values could have made it an internationally-renowned classic, but I suspect it never made it that far because it’s so damn weird.
The plot of this anime movie is honestly not the easiest thing to piece together, much less summarize, but it essentially tells the story of a seemingly-normal guy named Toru who works as an unappreciated peon in the marketing wing of a Japanese railway company. Out of the blue, he starts having intense nosebleeds while spacing out and imagining the whirring gears and levers of a dark train. One evening after a night out with his girlfriend, he goes to a subway and has a paranormal encounter with an infamous ghost train, which the media dubs the “X Train”. The X Train is seemingly made out of pure electricity and can mainly be seen through two electric sparks that resemble the front wheels of a train traveling down the tracks, trailed by lightning, and it leaves a power surge like a huge EMP in its wake. After excitedly telling his circle of friends and coworkers about the encounter, Toru is kidnapped by a strange government agency that seems to believe he has ESP and some sort of connection with the X Train. They force the goofy Toru against his will into a battle against this spectral, psionic locomotive, with results about like you might expect… only not.
It’s hard to know where to begin talking about this movie, but the music might be a valid jumping-off point. It opens with a dedication to Duke Ellington, whose famous “Take the A Train” is referenced in this anime’s title. Ellington’s jazzy, off-kilter piano music also provides the soundtrack for the anime, and it feels oddly appropriate in highlighting the absurdity and mismatch of protagonist and antagonist. The animation quality is extremely high in this film, with some of it rivaling the best work done by masterpieces of the same period like Akira, Wicked City, and Demon City Shinjuku. It also has a similar fascination with body horror. I can’t get into the most notable example without major end-of-movie spoilers, but Toru’s throbbing temples and nosebleeds when having his extrasensory connections with the X Train are a good minor example of the unsettling gross-out visuals one would find in a movie with that focus.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also say that this movie can be incredibly funny at times. Some of the more juvenile humor lands flat, but some of the funniest moments involve things as small as an animation of Toru’s eyes roaming from left to right after something otherworldly has happened, all the while keeping this goofy-ass perplexed expression on his face. The art style is also fairly unique. There are no attractive-looking characters in this anime; every single character design displays a hint of the grotesque in their caricatured expressions, but at the same time reflecting more realism than most anime in reflecting how people actually look. Finally, Toru himself is a thoroughly likeable main character, an everyman with enough pluck to make him admirable but also lame enough to make him funny and relatable.
So, why is this movie so thoroughly unknown, and why did it never even receive an official release in the West outside of a fandub? I can think of several reasons, frankly. First and foremost, this anime is defiantly odd in a way that will certainly appeal to some people (me included), but the humor of a subtle sort that would fly straight over the head of about half of its audience and might not appeal to another half of that group where it actually landed. Its art style is a similar acquired taste, as is its music. Duke Ellington might be a critical legend and beloved by jazz aficionados, but experimental, free-form, discordant piano music is not usually showcased in movie soundtracks for good reason. Soundtrack music generally functions as a way to accentuate the emotions present in a narrative. In this film, it feels like a way to highlight how creative artists (both Ellington and those who made this movie) can do whatever the hell they want, and you can take it or leave it.
More than anything, though, I suspect that Take the X Train never achieved the same level of critical success as its peers because its humorous ethos refuses any pretext of self-importance. Akira makes an excellent counterpoint in this regard. Akira wants you to take it very seriously, and its production values, music, and style – which almost mixes cyberpunk themes with Lovecraftian “horror of the unknown” – all work together to cement a solid argument for that expectation. Does it all work together as a logical whole with no loose ends? Perhaps yes, perhaps no. But enough is left spookily vague and suggestively “important” that we want to give it the benefit of a doubt. Take the X Train works on an entirely different wavelength. The exaggerated art style, the goofy protagonist, the odd musical choices, and its profound sense of the absurd all seem to imply that “We don’t take ourselves too seriously, and neither should you.” And yet, I can’t help but feel that this is a red herring bait that we shouldn’t take. Take the X Train actually does have some deep things to say: about the helplessness of an individual against an oppressive system, about the role of the underappreciated worker in society, about how doing the right thing is worthwhile even if it doesn’t always promise a good result. But where this movie is concerned, these will forever be deep truths wrapped in a really elaborate joke. And as with most good comedy that contains that, many in the audience will gulp down the joke without ever even tasting the hidden truth below the surface flavor.
Take the X Train is “anime obscura” of the best kind – one of those odd little hidden gems that would be great to invite a few good friends whose taste in humor and understanding you think highly of to watch with you and talk about afterward. Plus, at only 51 minutes, it isn’t a high “ask” in terms of runtime. A big thank-you to the Roku Channel The B-Zone for introducing it to me. You can also find the subtitled movie for free on YouTube currently at the link below.
Finally, if you enjoy Take the X Train, it’s worth noting that its primary creator (writer/director Rintaro) did go on to other, more successful projects — most notably, the anime adaptation of the silent classic Metropolis.