Japanese curry: Asteroid memorial

What was the first country to land a spacecraft on an asteroid? What was the first country to bring asteroid samples back to Earth? What was the first country to celebrate these achievements with at least four different movies … and a commemorative curry?

The answers are Japan, Japan and of course Japan.

The Japanese space probe Hayabusa was launched in 2003. Its destination, which it reached using cutting-edge ion engines, was the asteroid Itokawa. The asteroid is a peanut-shaped mass of rock and dust about 500 meters long, usually described as being 300 million kilometers from Earth. Just reaching a target of that size at that distance is an amazing feat.

Unfortunately, a lot of things went wrong on the mission. But in most cases, engineers at JAXA (Japan’s space agency) were able to improvise solutions.

The worst problem was that a device meant to collect material from the asteroid malfunctioned. When Hayabusa returned to Earth in 2010, making a fiery landing in Australia, its sample canister appeared to be empty. Microscopic inspection, however, revealed tiny particles of asteroid dust that scientists are continuing to study. Although not the hoped-for treasure trove, it was a historic achievement nonetheless. Itokawa and the moon are the only celestial bodies from which humans have ever managed to bring back any material to Earth.

I recently learned, though a Yomiuri Shimbun article, that the Sunkus convience store chain was selling “Itokawa Curry” for a limited time. A block of rice in the shape of the asteroid was positioned on a plate of curry sauce that represented the darkness of space. Floating in the background were a meatball standing in for Earth and a sliced egg playing the sun. Crowning it all was a bite-sized piece of fried chicken perched on the rice to represent Hayabusa landing on the asteroid. (This is appropriate, given that Hayabusa is named after a bird – albeit a peregrine falcon, not a chicken.)

I was desperate to try this historic dish for myself, and over the past week and a half I have made a total of six visits to four different Sunkus locations, but it wasn’t until yesterday – the very last day of the promotion – that I finally found the coveted curry in stock.

Asteroid sampling tool

In case you’re disappointed at not being able to try it yourself, I can assure you that the flavors were well within the gray middle zone of convenience-store standards and thus totally forgettable. But the symbolism was delicious.

It turns out that this product was meant as a promotion for the Shochiku film company’s new 3-D movie about the Hayabusa mission. It’s called “Okaeri, Hayabusa,” which means “Welcome home, Hayabusa.” Here’s a trailer:

That movie is just the latest of several on the topic. Twentieth Century Fox also came out with a film simply called “Hayabusa,” starring Toshiyuki Nishida, an actor best known for his lead role in the movie series “Tsuri Baka Nisshi” (Diary of a fishing fool). Here’s the trailer:

The Kadokawa film company made a computer-graphic retelling of Hayabusa’s journey called “Hayabusa: Back to the Earth.” The final line of this trailer, “Saa … kairou … natsukashii chikyu ni” (Well … let’s go home … to our fondly remembered Earth) actually chokes me up for some reason. Maybe it’s the accompanying music. Maybe it’s the fact that I actually understood it. Or maybe there was a mood-altering ingredient in that curry. Watch:

The Hayabusa film with the most star power (pun unavoidable) is Toei’s “Hayabusa Harukanaru Kikan” (a title I would roughly translate as “Hayabusa’s homecoming from afar”), with Ken Watanabe as an awkwardly coiffed engineer:

I don’t think any of these movies could be described as massive hits. Does this reflect on their cinematic quality, or were there just too many of them for the market to absorb? Not having actually watched the films, I’ll leave that for others to judge.

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