Midnight Train 1989: Ode to Youth

Beatdown streets of Memphis, a love letter to Elvis Pressley, and the specter of the stories he left behind.

Jim Jarmusch’s 1989 flick Mystery Train is a snapshot of Americana, at its grimy glory. 

The journey begins at the sideview of a teenaged couple from Yokohama sitting across each other as the noise of the train tracks greet the viewer’s ear.

Doc Martens, a walkman and cigaratees. Jun and Mitsuko arrive at the king’s palace, Memphis.

Leather jackets and well cared for pomade aside there is a quiet Japanese aesthetic to this tale. From the moment they step unto the soil of the city, the couple reeks a stench of genuine wonder, everything is new, everything is uncharted territory yet Memphis refuses to react to them. The city pesters on, indifferent.  

As they seek a first destination under the new air of Memphis, Mitsuko argues on the merits of making Graceland their first stop which Jun opposes, later warming up to the idea without directly acknowledging the favor he does for her, always maintaining his cool guy persona. 

Mitsuko greets the night clerk (Screamin’ Jay Hawkins) with “Hi goodnight” in that cheery exposition so quintessentially Japanese to western senses, while Jun shyly stays to himself. 

Iconic and timeless, the city roares as the young couple walk with the red suitcase between them.

As that distinctive red suitcase swings between them under the beautiful cinematography of Robby Muller, there was a small thought growing claws in my mind. The regal status of Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley half-heartedly argued over the embrace of warm cigarette smoke. Red lipstick smeared across their faces, Jun’s resistance to smile. It became clear as the red Mister Baby print on Mitsuko’s leather jacket.      

‘Elvis Pressley, Carl Perkins, Elvis Pressley’

Mitsuko takes a lead in the relationship, to the point it becomes dangerously one-sided, she yearns for Jun’s approval, even in intimacy asking for his body to wrap around hers, yet he looks away, attempting to hide himself in the embrace of coolness. Jun loves Mitsuko, that much is made clear through his sheepish eyes when she is not investigating his glances but he prefers to keep this too himself. Always straying away from open affection and emotions.  

The bed, the battleground of their love with no victor.

His misreading of the Americana fantasy archetype is prevalent. The macho man with a heart of gold buried under oceans of steely toughness, the greaser bad boy who gets the nice girl. These ideas have seeped their way into Jun’s understanding of the culture he worships. A misunderstanding or not it’s what shapes his relationship with Mitsuko. It’s hardly an ideal equal division among them but like a committed character actor Jun’s persistence to his persona takes priority.  

“Isn’t there anything I could do to cheer you up” Mitsuko says before embarking on a brave lipstick filled kiss smearing Jun’s face with red. She laughs and says ‘Now you look a little happier” but he doesn’t, he pulls out a cigarette and before he lights it she stops him and says she’ll do for him, showing off an impressive maneuver using her feet to give him flame, to this still no reaction just a cold, thanks.  

Mitsuko in this scene was the jester and Jun the spoiled prince, no matter how hard she tried she was met with a tall wall of indifference, and that’s the arc of their story. Mitsuko takes a step forward and Jun takes one sideways. There is a hole as wide as Memphis between them, but as young lovers often do, they don’t see what will be left when this greaser cosplay ends, and the juice of this fruit turns dry and they are forced into adulthood, seeing that far ahead simply isn’t cool.  

Solitute in foreign land. Jun stares out the window, Yokohama nowhere to be found.

Jun loves Mitsuko, he just loves his slicked back hair and stoic one-liners more.  He shows his love in quiet ways, if one were to blink, they’d miss them, the type of love only an immature man can give, and that only a naive girl can accept. 

Far from Yokohama is youth in a bottle thrown into the sea, a reminder of a time period already far gone from today, and the two figures that worship the one before their own, one familiar to a TikTok generation wearing oversized vests and parted hair, strong aromas of Aaron Carter’s boyish looks or Left Eye’s tomboy charm. Coolness is recycled as days turn into nights. Jun and Mitsuko have become their own little snapshot of retro and their story lives on as a beautiful ode to youth.       

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