The Quick Explanation
Bullet Train plays out like a witty action movie a la Smokin’ Aces or Lucky Number Slevin. But it’s actually a fantasy movie. Luck isn’t just a theme, it’s an active, participating power that affects the plot from start to finish. That makes Bullet Train a little deeper than most action movies as the film asks you to think about fate and how much we make our fate versus how much our fate makes us. Ladybug is the character most often affected by luck and fate. These fantastic elements add a layer of existentialism that befits Ladybug’s musings and the Thomas labels assigned by Lemon. You could probably do a whole Jungian reading of Bullet Train—though who actually wants to do that?
Narratively Bullet Train is a bit of a Russian nesting doll. It’s two revenge stories rolling into a redemption story. There’s The Elder’s journey to exact revenge on The White Death. There’s The Prince’s journey to prove herself to her father by dethroning her father (who is The White Death). And there’s Ladybug trying to find his footing after a run of bad luck, coming to terms with his luck and fate, and finding some peace of mind.
- Ladybug – Brad Pitt
- Lemon – Brian Tyree Henry
- Tangerine – Aaron Taylor-Johnson
- The Prince – Joey King
- The Elder – Hiroyuki Sanada
- The Father (Yuichi Kimura) – Andrew Koji
- White Death – Michael Shannon
- The Wolf – Bad Bunny (Benito A. Martinez Ocasio)
- The Horney – Zazie Beetz
- Maria Beetle – Sandra Bullock
- Kayda Izumi, concession girl – Karen Fukuhara
- Passenger – Channing Tatum
- Carver – Ryen Reynolds
- Director – David Leitch
- Original novel Maria Beetle by – Kōtarō Isaka
Why it’s called Bullet Train
There’s a double-layer to the title. First, it’s the setting of the movie. Our characters are aboard the Japanese high-speed train known as the Shinkansen, nicknamed the “bullet train” for its amazing velocity. Second, the title implies this is a train full of bullets, or people with weapons capable of firing bullets. It’s a clever way of letting audiences know, “This is an action film.” The literal aspects of the title makes me think of the infamous Snakes on a Plane. You can imagine the executives debating the title, “Assassins on a Train just doesn’t sound good…” And one goes, “Gun train?” Then the other hears the iconic “Thus Spake Zarathustra” from 2001: a Space Odyssey and says, “Bullet. Train.” Then they crack open a bottle and pat themselves on the back.
What’s interesting is that Bullet Train is based on a novel by Kōtarō Isaka. The novel was called マリアビートル, aka Mariabītoru, aka Maria Beetle. So the original name actually has nothing to do with a bullet train. It’s actually a reference to Ladybug’s handler: Maria. The most obvious meaning to this is thinking of “Maria Beetle” as a euphemism for a ladybug. In the story, The Elder explains the ladybug is special because it absorbs the bad luck around everyone else, allowing others to avoid those woes. So it seems the title is actually getting at more of the fantasy aspect of the story and the role of luck and fate. Especially since Maria is sort of an omniscient presence for Ladybug. She’s in his ear, guiding him, listening to him, supporting him.
The original and film titles accomplish different things. But I think both work.
Differences between Bullet Train and Maria Beetle
Much is the same. The story takes place in Japan on the Shinkansen. The Prince is the child of a terrifying mob boss. Tangerine and Lemon fail to bring the mob boss’s other son back alive and lose money and are trying to figure everything out. Meanwhile, Ladybug is just supposed to grab a briefcase and get off at the next stop.
The biggest and most controversial difference is that people assumed all the novel characters were Japanese. But the movie made a majority of the characters non-Japanese. The mob boss is Russian and his kids present as British. Ladybug is American. Lemon and Tangerine are British. In terms of the main cast, it’s only The Father and The Elder who are Japanese. The novel’s author, Isaka, wasn’t as concerned as everyone else. He said to the New York Times: “I don’t have any feeling of wanting people to understand Japanese literature or culture. It’s not like I understand that much about Japan, either.” It’s said that Isaka considered the characters “ethnically malleable.”
The reviews for the novel are all very good. So if you liked the tone of the movie then you’d probably enjoy the humor and suspense of the novel.
The themes and meaning of Bullet Train
Luck and fate are the two most obvious themes. But luck is so explicitly an active force in the film that Bullet Train becomes more of a fantasy movie than a traditional action thriller like Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. That luck and fate have such major impacts on characters raises a lot of questions. Especially as it seems that Ladybug’s perception of his own unluckiness is actually incorrect, as we see that he’s in fact incredibly lucky. That most of the bad things that happen around him happen to protect him. That begs the question: why him? What made him so lucky? Is it just his fate? Is it good karma? Is it something he could eventually lose? What’s the limit to his luck? We don’t really get satisfying answers to really any of the questions regarding luck and fate aside from simply accepting fate is a thing and is out of our hands. That’s the journey we see Ladybug go on.
Less explicit is a theme about relationships and companionship. Almost every character is defined by a relationship they have, have lost, or want. Characters who feel alone are in darker places. Characters who have someone are in better places. For an example, take The Father. He’s in trouble because he was being a bad father. His lack of duty allowed The Prince to push The Father’s son off a roof. Which led to The Prince manipulating The Father and eventually potentially mortally wounding him. What saves The Father? His father, The Elder. The Elder shows up and does all the good father stuff The Father should have been doing. And thus The Elder ensures his son and grandson survive.
The support of others is the biggest difference-maker in Bullet Train. And is probably more the true theme than all the stuff regarding luck. I guess you can start to make a connection between the two themes. Those who are alone, have less luck on their side. While those who have people supporting them or working with them have more opportunities for luck to turn in their favor? Nothing is ever stated so explicitly but the movie comes down to Ladybug, The Elder, The Father, and Lemon fighting White Death and henchmen. The only reason the heroes survive is because of how they work together.
Ultimately, I think Bullet Train asks people to reflect on their luck and their relationships, with the understanding that one can directly impact the other.
The end of Bullet Train explained
The very end of Bullet Train finds Ladybug and his handler, Maria, coming face to face after Maria traveled all the way to Kyoto to make sure Ladybug is okay. He’s delighted. She’s charmed. And you may wonder if there’s something between them. Like maybe they’ve had crushes on one another for a while but haven’t ever been together like this before. As they begin to walk to the car, Ladybug stops to comment on a cat. Just then, part of the crashed bullet train falls. It would have crushed the pair if they hadn’t stopped to look at the cat. Instead, they’re perfectly placed under the open window. So they’re completely safe. Untouched. How lucky.
What’s that mean?
For most of the movie, Ladybug believed he had bad luck. But it becomes pretty obvious early on that he’s actually quite lucky. That things going wrong are actually, unbeknownst to him, working in his favor. By the end, he’s changed his mind. And the piece of the train missing him and Maria only reinforces this newfound sense that fate is on his side. So just in terms of character arc the very end allows Ladybug an explicit reaction that shows his growth.
But if fate is on Ladybug’s side, why couldn’t he just get off the train in the first place? Why didn’t fate just make the job easy on him rather than forcing him into all the crazy things he went through? I’d argue we’re supposed to appreciate this was fate’s elaborate way of getting Ladybug and Maria to get together. That they’ve been crushing on each other from a distance but now are finally face to face. The situation was so dire it caused her to close the distance and be there with Ladybug in person.
If you have other questions, leave a comment below! Thanks for reading.