The Crowd, the Train, and the Absurdity of Perseverance without Hope

The introduction of high performance train in 1957 made it an especially important year in the genesis of Tokyo’s contemporary commuter train network. Coincidently, in the same year Japan’s Daiei Studies released the film Man’in densha⁠1 (The Full-Up Train). Directed by Ichikawa Kon and written in collaboration with his wife, Natto Wada, Man’in densha is an intellectually driven satire of postwar Japan that mobilizes the packed train as its central metaphor for the irrationality of postwar rationalization. Although very little time is actually devoted in the film to the depiction of packed trains or commuting, it is significant for the way in which packed commuter train in the film embodies the lived irrationality of operation beyond capacity. In this context, however, Man’in densha deploys the packed train in a somewhat predictable, albeit comical, critique of social conditions that draws on the relation between the train as mass transportation to the structures of mass production under capitalism. At the same time, Man’in densha is far more interesting for the philosophy of technology that it struggles less successfully to articulate. It is remarkable in this regard for trying to move beyond the particularist discussion of a Japanese experience of modernity vis-a-vis concern with its failed military aspirations, which dominated scholarly discourse in initial postwar era.⁠2 In fact the subjects of war and occupation are entirely absent in the film. Instead, it aims to address general questions concerning the relation between humans and machines as a matter of labor. Echoing the universalist premise of a resurgent Marxist inspired intellectual thought and activism in Japan at the time, Man’in densha aspires to present urban overcrowding in Japan as symptomatic of an inevitable processes of industrial rationalization that has been exacerbated by the introduction of automation technology.⁠3 The result, it shows, is radical disjuncture between social and technological development that is manifest in a growing imbalance between supply and demand in the labor and consumer market ⎯ as universities continue to pump out thousands of graduates each year for automated factories that need only a fewer workers; and urban crowds gather in front department store window able only to stare longingly at coveted consumer items. 



On the one hand, the film seems to depict these conditions as inevitable effects of rationalized production whereby individuals are forced to submit to the irrationally determined circumstances of struggle without hope ⎯ “there is no choice.” On the other hand, Man’in densha also seems to want to allow for the possibility of a different kind of critique. Specifically, it gestures to the idea that the absurdity of perseverance without hope is in fact a choice eventuating within a contorted human and machine collective. 

 Man’in densha’s central character, Tomio Moroi is a fresh graduate from a top university in Tokyo who embarks on a career as a salaried white-collar employee in the management section of a beer factory near Osaka. He is a man whose zealous embrace of the notion that there is no choice makes him a tragic and comic figure whom the film’s trailer describes as “the contemporary new man and hero” exemplary of the “youth who will develop tomorrows Japan.” Opening with Moro’s graduation ceremony, the film follows him through his first days of training to his new position at the beer factory. Moroi’s salaryman career, however, turns out to be short-lived. It is derailed by a series of misfortunes of increasingly improbable nature that leave him at the end of the film destitute and sharing a small shack in a rural area with this mother. Moroi’s sudden and rapid descent from salaried worker to unemployment is an obvious statement regarding the increasing precarity and contingency accompanying postwar industrial rationalization. At the same time, his steadfast determination to solider on despite hardship is meant not as an expression of misguided and ultimately destructive hope, what Laruen Berlant calls “cruel optimism.⁠4” Rather, it is it’s antithesis, pragmatic pessimism ⎯ an absurd capacity to persevere in the face of futility. 

 Moroi’s troubles begin at the start of his new salaryman life with a debilitating tooth pain, which we eventually learn is caused by machine noise. When the pain moves to his knee Moroi seeks medical help from the company doctor, who administers a shot. The needle he uses, however, is contaminated and Moroi comes down with a sever fever that turns his hair white. In the meantime, Moroi also receives a letter from his father, who owns a clock store and is a city councilman, claiming that his mother is losing her mind. When Moroi hires a young medical student friend to assess his mother’s condition he learns that his mother is fine and that actually it is his father who is apparently mentally unstable. Before Moroi can act, the medical student friend exploits the father’s political position, convincing him to build and commit himself to psychiatric hospital, which the friend ⎯ now a doctor ⎯  takes charge over. Circumstances then take a turn toward the radically absurd when the friend, demonstrating to Moroi how to get ahead in life with a mere “hop, skip, and jump,” is suddenly run over by a bus as he accidentally “jumps” into the street. In shock, Moroi, runs into a lamp pole and is knocked unconscious for just over a month. He awakes in hospital to find himself unemployed as a result of missing too many days of work.

With hordes of fresh university graduates flowing into the city every year Moroi is unable to find another position. He is also too destitute to marry. He manages only to find a work as a janitor at a rural school, where he takes residence with his mother in the school’s tool shed. This too turns out to be only a brief career as he is let go for being overqualified when the school learns of his academic record. In the last scene of the film we see that the forever unflagging Moroi has resolved to turn his cramped little shack into a cram school. Yet in a final allegory of his precarious circumstances and demonstration of the inevitably farcical character of his determination, the film leaves Moroi insisting that everything is going to be okay as he and his mother hang on to the roof of their shack against a sudden strong wind that threatens to carry them all away.

The packed train is the film’s central analogy for the absurdity of pragmatic pessimism ⎯ perseverance without hope. This is made clear when a confident Moroi declares with exaggerated nonchalance to a junior university student before leaving for his new life, “You know, there’s not a single seat we can occupy with hope in this country. But moping around won’t get us anywhere closer to a seat on the packed train either. Society is rigged so that we have to work senselessly hard without good cause.” The film’s packed train scene follows soon after, embodying the totalizing systemic nature of the absurdity of such struggle in its depiction of salarymen pushing and shoving on the platform merely to squeeze aboard a train in time to file en masse through factory gates and line up, yet again, to punch their time cards. The scene begins with Moroi rushed yet obviously exhilarated, checking the shine on his shoes, as he prepares to leave his austere single room quarters in the company dormitory and commute to his first day of work. In the brief moment that it takes Moroi to lock his door he is engulfed in a crowd of salarymen, all of whom have exited their rooms at the same time. As the crowd begins its somber procession down the narrow corridor and stairs, Moroi pushes in front and races down the stairs. The scene shifts to the train station where we see a crowded platform and hurried salarymen rushing to make their trains. Eventually the camera finds Moroi enveloped in a crowed of young salarymen like himself as he flails with his arms and pushes to board the train. The scene verges on chaotic as the men grab each other by the head and shoulders, pushing, twisting, and squirming to get ahead. Finally, as the men somehow manage to inch into the doorway of the train the station platform attendant or, “pusher” (oshiya), shoves the back of the last man in with his foot so that the doors can close. As the train pulls away we see Moroi, from the outside with his hands and face pressed up against the glass of the door. The camera then shifts to the train interior where Moroi is jammed in among the somber and utterly silent crowd of salarymen commuters.

Ichikawa’s depiction of pushing and shoving commuters is a clear embellishment of the packed train that works to transform its quiet order into an instantiation of the crowded train. Mobilized in countless films and novels, the crowded train is a quintessential trope of urban modernity in which is distilled the notion of an irreconcilable conflict between human and machine under capitalism. It is a spectacular expression of capitalism’s rationalizing technological processes through which human beings are objectified as mere cargo conveyed in accordance with the merciless imperatives of mass production. In specifying the processes of industrial rationalization as a matter of perseverance without hope, Ichikawa expands this trope, rendering the crowded train an implicit embodiment of Max Weber’s famous allegory in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirt of Capitalism of the “iron cage.⁠1” In Weber’s argument, the “iron cage” marks the historical culmination of the evolution of capitalism in which disciplined labor has been shorn of its initial spiritual significance in Calvinist cosmology as an index of salvation and transformed into a meaningless activity “bound to the technical and economic conditions of machine production.” The allegory of the “iron cage” captures the essence of Weber’s critique of modernity as giving rise to a disenchanted world as the result of the valorization and pursuit of instrumental reason in science. Reason informs the drive toward increasing rationalization through technology and names a form of domination administered through a totalizing and soulless bureaucratic order. The ultimate paradox of this schema is announced in the eventual emergence of irrational rationality. That is to say, reason engenders irrationality when it is mediated through the environmentally and social destructive pursuit of material wealth in capitalism.  

Although the association of the crowded train with Weber’s “iron cage” is only implicit in the film, it is most likely deliberate. One need only look to the Ichikawa and Wada production of Shokei no heya (The Punishment Room) one year earlier for proof that the husband and wife duo were familiar with the Weber’s work. The film features a scene in which university students engage in a heated discussion of Weber’s seminal text. But Ichikawa also departs from a purely Weberian critique in Man’in densha when it comes to his representation of technology and his implicit critique therein of the contemporary condition. What emerges is a philosophy of technology that begins to anticipate in many ways Herbert Marcuse’s critique of Weber.⁠2 

Marcuse famously argues that Weber treats technology only as a manifestation of scientific reason, which overwrites the initial transcendental significance of disciplined labor. In other words, technology in Weber’s argument is merely a discursive effect of reason such that rationality operates as a formal force. By contrast, Marcuse insists that rationality must be materially anchored. Marcuse’s argument derives of course from Marx’s theory of historical materialism, which gives prominence to the base material conditions of possibility behind an economic paradigm from which emerge a social and cultural structure. But Marcuse lends even more weight to technological development, shifting the force that Weber ascribes to reason to a technological material reality. Accordingly, rationalization is thus not an articulation of reason but rather an expression of “technological rationality.⁠1” The claim is that rationality is inherent to technology; it is an effect of its underlying instrumental ontology that shapes minds and bodies, informing a technical mode of thinking that renders decisions technical matters to be determined based on criterion of instrumentality. Insofar as this is a technologically determinist argument, Marcuse’s criticism of society is precisely that society has let itself be determined by technology. Or, to put the matter in Ichikawa’s terms, we surrendered to the notion that there is no hope because we believe that there is choice. For Marcuse, emancipation from this condition demands forging a new relation between human and machine. Similar to Simondon, whom Marcuse draws on at critical moments in his text One-Dimensional Man, this new relation rests on a reconceptualization of technics. For Marcuse, advances in automation in the postwar period present an important historical possibility in this respect. But this possibility remains unrealized as a partially completed technological project. Automation, he argues, engenders a qualitative shift in the nature of alienation under capitalism, transferring the locus of exploited surplus labor from the blue-collar laboring body to white-collar technical and mental labor⎯ what in contemporary terms is often called “immaterial labor.⁠2” Citing Simondon’s understanding of the machine as “technological reality” involving the folding of human and technological elements, Marcuse argues that in capturing not only the energy of the body but also the mind, advanced mechanized production realizes a more complete relation between human and technology.⁠3 If this has led to greater exploitation in the present, it is also lends it self to the possibility of a revolutionary transformation of society. Similar to Simondon, Marcuse understands this transformation as occurring by virtue of a new system of value that will arise from thinking with technology. But for Marcuse, thinking with technology is about a novel form of dialectical politics rather than transduction and individuation. Put simply, for Marcuse thinking with technology will rationalize thought such that we will lift the false veil of technology’s neutral value that has enabled its irrational deployment as a means of exploitation and political domination. In so doing, technology will realize its true rationality as it is politicized and transformed into an instrument for pacifying nature and creating a world without scarcity. This is not technological fetishism, claims Marcuse. But it is clearly a utopian vision that rests on understanding that human society is entangled with technology, yet human beings are not themselves machines (240). 

What might be called a Marcusian technosocial premise runs throughout Man’in densha. It surfaces clearly at a number of points in the visual aesthetics and narrative. The first instance involves Ichikawa’s treatment of the bottling process in the beer factory in which Moroi is initially employed. The sequence follows a scene on Moroi’s first day of work in which Moroi is reproached by his section head for working too fast. In contrast to the other employees in the office, who delay starting work by gently sharpening pencils by hand and carefully preparing the ink in their pens, Moroi swoops up his stack of invoices and finishes his work in ten minutes. Moroi’s zealousness catches the attention of his section head and he is pulled aside for a talk. “Do you have a problem (kosho) or something?” asks Moroi’s section head. Moroi appears confused by the question in general but also specifically by the term kosho, which is typically used to refer to a machine malfunction or sports injury. Insofar as both out of context in the scene, the remark sets the stage for a critique later film of labor as effecting a conflation of machines and bodies. In the meantime, Ichikawa proceeds. Moroi catches on after the section head asks why he is not working and responds, boastingly, that he has already finished the assigned invoices. The section head replies, “This is troubling…It’s only been ten minutes since the 8 a.m. siren sounded. You know, there’s a determined amount of work assigned each day. It’s very important that you work in a systematic fashion not to finish that until 5 p.m. If only you raise your efficiency you’ll destroy the company’s rational management and smooth operations. So please take caution!” 

Although clearly dumbfounded by the logic, Moroi complies the next day in a rational fashion by first calculating an irrational work performance. Determining that he needs to complete twenty-five invoices per hour in order to finish the two hundred invoices, he concludes that he must spend two minutes and forty seconds on each invoice in order to stretch his assignment until 5 p.m. As Moroi begins this irrational process, the scene cuts away to the factory floor where in a sequence that lasts just over a minute and a half the camera follows the automated bottling process of washing, filling, capping and labeling. 

The tenderness with which Ichikawa’s camera treats the machines is remarkable. Through Ichikawa’s lens this is not the overbearing factory line of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times, in which workers are yoked to the incessant mechanized order. Rather, the shot conveys a sense of wonder with the fabulous speed, efficiency and gentleness of the mechanical production apparatus as it whisks the delicate glass beer bottles through the complicated cycle without that aid of human labor. In fact, in contrast to the brisk activity of the machines, factory floor employees ⎯ all of whom appear to be women ⎯ stand or sit by idly, their labor ultimately unnecessary yet their presence required in accordance with the underlying irrationality of what Marcuse would call, “partial automation.” This long shot of the factory floor machines stands almost on its own. Ostensibly, the sequence shows the source of noise causing Moroi tooth pain and when the camera finally returns to the factory office we see Moroi rubbing the side of his mouth. Yet Ichikawa certainly did not require a full minute and a half to convey this. Moreover, the long shot hardly emphasizes machine noise. In the context of the preceding exchange between Moroi and his section head, the marvelously rationalized labor of bottling machines stands in stark contrast with the cultivated inefficiency of factory management. The efficiency of human labor, it seems Ichikawa is suggesting, is undermined by institutional incompetence such that the realm of the social appears almost pathetically organized in comparison to the domain of the technological. This interpretation is supported by another instance in the film in which we learn of cronyism in company management that has led to the hiring of more new employees than are actually needed. 

What are we to make of these scenes? The film seems to suggest that human society and human beings need to become machine-like. That this is not the case becomes clear later in the film when Moroi’s insistence that he is part of the machinery and can overcome his weakness to machine noise proves not only foolish and naive but also to have a disastrous effects in his life. The dentist is the first to warn Moroi, invoking the familiar mantra, “there’s no choice,” as he explains that there is no cure for Moroi’s tooth pain. “There’s nothing that can be done. Its just a fact of these modern times,” the dentist tells Moroi after making the diagnosis that his toothache is caused by machine noise and will most likely move around his body. Moroi of course refuses this prognosis, declaring that “if I get used to the noise, then the pain will stop.” When as predicted the pain travels, locating in his knee, Moroi seeks treatment from the company physician, who advises him that the only cure is rest away from the din of factory machines. Moroi responds, “You obviously don’t understand factory labor. I’m part of the machinery, one and the same. So there’s no rest as long as the machines are moving.” Upon Moroi’s insistence the doctor gives him an injection for the pain, which becomes acutely infected overnight and leads to a high fever that requires yet another injection to suppress. From that point on Moroi’s life begins to unravel in a rapid downward spiral from which it will not recover. He awakens to find his hair has turned white and his mother waiting beside his bed to deliver the news of his father’s mental illness. 

Insofar as Moroi’s confusion between human and machine is not the sole source of his downfall, it is the underlying problematic and source of social irrationality in the film. For Ichikawa, the problem is not technology but rather, similar to Marcuse, technological development that is not being allowed to effect equal social development. Where automation could be liberating human beings from labor and need, the irrational application of technology as a means of political domination and economic exploitation produces instead the conflation of human and machine, forcing human beings to labor without hope, struggling for superfluous employment positions. To the extent that Ichikawa, unlike Marcuse, does not seem to offer a theoretical solution to these circumstances we can ultimately interpret the film itself as a didactic attempt to exploit the mass potential often associated with cinema in order to effect the politicization of technology. 

The trouble was that Man’in densha was not a successful film. It performed so poorly at the box office that Ichikawa later in life called it one of the worst films he ever made. Masamura Yasuzo, a director and contemporary of Ichikawa, suggested the latter’s attempt at satirical critique through the depiction of an overcrowded Japan on the brink of chaos, simply failed to resonate with a nation reaping the first fruits of economic recovery following the war.⁠1 It is also possible, however, that Man’in densha failed to resonate with the audience for the same reason that Marcuse’s attempts to reconceptualize a relationship with technology ultimately fall flat. When Marcuse draws on a Simondonian notion of the machine as a folding of the technological and the human to envision the possibility of a world in which technology will be used in a truly rational fashion for human emancipation from need, he falls back on a dialectical schema of thought and thus misses what is truly radical about Simondon’s machine theory. Marcuse wants nature to become an object of a technological rationality that is guided by progressive political values rather than capitalist profit motive. Essentially, the engine of creation here is a negative dialectic between the feral force of nature and positive civilizing force of technology. As such, the nature of technology ultimately reverts from its co-informative relation with human beings to a mere instrument for human command over nature. What Marcuse misunderstands is that fundamental to Simondon’s theory of technics is his reconceptualization of nature. As Muriel Combes puts it, what Simondon “calls ‘nature’ is what renders social transformation thinkable.⁠2” Nature, for Simondon, is a paradigm of non-dialectical emergence that occurs in the gap between a living organism’s internal protean core (its “pre-individual share”) and external milieu. There is no negative pole at work here and the tensions in the gap are never synthesized more than to a metastable state. While Marcuse grasps Simondon’s idea of the machine as a folding of human and technology, the point he fails to understand is that technological ensembles can be open to co-informative emergence with living organisms by virtue of a gap, or margin of indeterminacy within their schema of operation. Thus it is not a matter of human relying on machine but rather, what John Johnston calls “becoming-machinic.⁠3” It bespeaks the collective that emerges in the independent but inter-dependent trajectories of ontogenesis in human and technological emergence. We need to mind the gap, as it were. 


[1] Man'in densha (The Crowded Train), Film, directed by Ichikawa Kon (1957; Tokyo: Daiei Studios).

[1] Much of this discussion occurred around the work of Maruyama Masao. See, for example, Masao Maruyama, "Nationalism in Japan," in Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics, ed. Masao Maruyama and Ivan I Morris (London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1969).

[1] Marxist influenced activism and intellectual discourse was strong in Japan’s interwar period. See, Harry D. Harootunian, History's Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000); Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000)..

[1] Lauren Gail Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2011).

[1] Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Scribner, 1976).

[1] Herbert Marcuse, "Industrialization and Capitalism in the Work of Max Weber," in Negations : Essays in Critical Theory (Boston: Beacon Press, 1968).

[1] One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1966).

[1] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (London: Penguin, 2004).

[1] Marcuse cites Simondon in The Mode of Existence of Technological Objects. The machine is not “an absolute unity, but only an individualized technical reality open in two directions, that of the relation to the elements and that of the relation among the individuals in the technical whole." Gilbert Simondon, loc. cit., p. 146., Marcuse p. 30.

[1] Kon Ichikawa and Yuki Mori, Ichikawa Kon No Eigatachi (Films of Kon Ichikawa) (Tokyo: Waizu Shuppan, 1994); James Quandt, Kon Ichikawa (Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2001).

[1] Muriel Combes, Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual, trans. Thomas LaMarre (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013), 54-55.

Berlant, Lauren Gail. Cruel Optimism.  Durham [N.C.]: Duke University Press, 2011.

Combes, Muriel. Gilbert Simondon and the Philosophy of the Transindividual. Translated by Thomas LaMarre.  Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 2013.

Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire.  London: Penguin, 2004.

Harootunian, Harry D. History's Disquiet: Modernity, Cultural Practice, and the Question of Everyday Life.  New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.

———. Overcome by Modernity: History, Culture, and Community in Interwar Japan.  Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.

Ichikawa, Kon, and Yuki Mori. Ichikawa Kon No Eigatachi (Films of Kon Ichikawa).  Tokyo: Waizu Shuppan, 1994.

Marcuse, Herbert. "Industrialization and Capitalism in the Work of Max Weber." In Negations : Essays in Critical Theory, 151-70. Boston: Beacon Press, 1968.

———. One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society.  Boston, Mass.: Beacon Press, 1966.

Maruyama, Masao. "Nationalism in Japan." In Thought and Behavior in Modern Japanese Politics, edited by Masao Maruyama and Ivan I Morris. London; New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Quandt, James. Kon Ichikawa.  Toronto: Cinematheque Ontario, 2001.

Weber, Max. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.  New York: Scribner, 1976.