In Japan, Christmas is a festival of shopping and ornamentation, with perhaps a trip to KFC thrown in. Mostly, though, it’s considered a holiday for romance.
Which helps explain Japan Rail’s indelible Christmas bullet train commercials, which advertised the Shinkansen service for several years in the late ’80s and early ’90s and again in 2000. Each installment in the “Christmas Express” series is a variation on a theme: Couples reunited through train travel. The soundtrack is Yamashita Tatsuro’s hit “Christmas Eve,” which was released in 1983 but topped the charts after appearing in the ads.
Watching them over and over, I have begun to appreciate the way the direction withholds so much: The romantic encounter itself is always superseded by the excitement or worry of anticipation and sometimes not shown at all. The sleek trains themselves scarcely appear, like in a glossy magazine ad that shows a handsome actor and only a glimpse of the expensive wristwatch he’s selling you. But it’s the trains, perhaps more than your waylaid lover, that you can rely on.
Gitte Marianne Hansen, a professor at Newcastle University who studies femininity in Japanese culture, has written that the advertisements illustrate the evolution of the female protagonist from one who waits passively for her lover to arrive, in the earlier commercials, to one who is making the journey herself. The voiceover narration evolves from one addressed to the traveling male protagonist, “It’s you who makes the jingle bell ring,” to a more neutral invitation, “Let’s meet, no matter the century.” (The translations are hers.)
Throughout this arc, though, the ads all portray a familiar moment of holiday alchemy, when the stress of planning and the strain of distance morph into the joy of seeing the right person at the right time.