Archive for the ‘Movie reviews’ Category

Space Brothers

September 24, 2012

A startlingly good movie came out in Japan this year. It’s called “Uchu Kyodai,” or “Space Brothers,” directed by Yoshitaka Mori. I began watching it with modest expectations, but soon found myself utterly charmed and even moved. I actually shed a tear at one point.

It’s about two brothers who make a childhood vow to become astronauts, but then follow different trajectories in adult life. Many years later, little brother Hibito (Masaki Okada) is still chasing that far-fetched dream while big brother Mutta (Shun Oguri) has settled on a more down-to-earth career designing cars.

Objectively, Mutta has made the more realistic choice. He has what should be a rewarding job that calls on his intelligence and creativity. But even the best-laid plans can go awry. Mutta’s boss is a clueless old stuffed suit who fails to appreciate his underling’s work – and soon that underling is out of work.

Meanwhile, Hibito has in fact become an astronaut and is living in Florida, where he is preparing for a NASA mission meant to lay the groundwork for human colonization of the moon. News coverage turns Hibito into a minor celebrity just as Mutta’s life is falling apart.

But then, Mutta receives a letter from JAXA (the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency) confirming his registration to take the qualifying exam for an astronaut training program. For Mutta, this is completely unexpected. Hibito had signed his brother up without telling him.

At first Mutta is resentful. Then he realizes he has nothing better to do. Then he starts to get into the idea. So, he goes and takes the exam – but there are many more hurdles to clear before he can finally put on a spacesuit.

Impressive realism

Early in Mutta’s training, Hibito finds himself in serious danger after an accident on the moon. At this point, I couldn’t help thinking, “Here we go: Now they’re going to have to put together a crack team to go and rescue Hibito, and for some reason Mutta will be considered indispensable for it, so they’ll end his training early and rush him into space where he can be the one to save his brother’s life.”

I often make such jaded guesses while watching Hollywood blockbusters. The bigger the movie is, the likelier I am to be right. But “Space Brothers” is an admirably realistic movie. Mutta’s training still has a couple of years to go, and he will not be leaving Earth any time soon. Whatever Hibito’s fate on the moon may be, he’s going to face it alone.

In a related difference from Hollywood convention, most of the film is about Mutta doing the work of preparing to become an astronaut. In most American movies these days, all of the hard work and study and testing and repetition and drudgery would be compressed into a brief montage to clear the way for the big action scenes. But hard work and preparation is a major part of what this movie is about. The only high-profile Hollywood picture I can think of offhand that has a similar focus is “An Officer and a Gentleman” – and that came out way back in 1982. Lots of movies have a “follow your dream” message. Fewer have a more meaningful “work for your dream” message.

Does this mean that “Space Brothers” is an especially Japanese movie, or just an especially good movie? I’ll leave the first part of that question up in the air, but I’ll say yes to the second part.

Japanese characteristics

However, one way in which it is clearly a Japanese movie is that Mutta, as the older brother, feels he should be the one to take the lead in anything he and Hibito do together. This magnifies the degree to which Hibito’s success makes Mutta feel like a failure, and helps to explain Mutta’s reluctance to go into space at all. The film doesn’t beat you over the head with this theme, but it is something that both brothers are clearly aware of.

“Space Brothers” is based on a manga by Chuya Koyama, which has also been adapted as an anime.

Another Japanese characteristic of the film is that in the small handful of scenes that take place in English, everyone speaks very slowly and almost flatly – including the white actors and black actors playing Americans, who are presumably native English speakers. Having seen this phenomenon before, I would guess there are two reasons for it. One might be that the foreign actors are trying not to speak faster than their Japanese counterparts. A more important reason might be that slowly delivered English is easier for Japanese moviegoers to comprehend as they draw on their half-remembered high school English lessons.

This could put the film at a disadvantage if it is ever released in an English-speaking country. However, I hope it won’t be much of a disadvantage since an overwhelming majority of the dialog is in Japanese.

Fortunately, the longest chunk of English-language dialog is delivered by a famous American who plays himself. He’s famous for something other than acting, but his slow English is the most natural-sounding in the film. It suits his role as a wise old man dispensing advice. (No, I won’t tell you who he is. That would be a spoiler.)

The supporting characters are all very small roles, and most of them blend into the scenery. The main focus is on the relationship between the two brothers, who embody two approaches to life. Take big chances, like Hibito, and you may get yourself killed. Play it safe, like Mutta, and you may die of disappointment.

We probably all have a little of both brothers inside of us.

Which one is stronger in you?


“Space Brothers” was released in Japan in May, and came out in Taiwan on Sept. 21. It will be released in Japan on DVD and Blu Ray in December. So why am I writing about it just now? I had that good fortune to watch it with English subtitles on transpacific flight earlier this month. (Thank you, American Airlines.) I’ll update this post as I learn about release dates in other countries. Until then, look for it on your next flight to or from Japan.


As of Dec. 21, 2012, this movie is available on DVD and Blu Ray in Japan.


A tiny speck of reality in “Battleship”

May 6, 2012

There’s a tradition in American journalism of using a buzzy topic from pop culture as a jumping-off point to discuss the more serious issues of the day. Having just seen the movie “Battleship,” in which Japan and the United States join forces in a war (against space aliens), I thought I’d try my hand at this type of essay, thinking about what a general American audience may not know but might be interested to learn. Here goes:

How can you be friends with a guy who kicks you in the face the first time you meet him? In the new movie “Battleship,” that is exactly how the relationship between the two main characters begins, yet the eventual buddies – a U.S. Navy officer and his Japanese counterpart – go on to save the world from invading space aliens.

Based on the classic board game of the same name, “Battleship” premiered in Japan in April and opens in America on May 18. It may be a splashy sci-fi action movie, but it also provides an opportunity to reflect on the real-life military alliance between the United States and Japan.

Things get off on the wrong foot between mariners Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) and Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) when Nagata’s foot connects with Hopper’s jaw during an inter-services soccer game near Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. The blindside kick may not have been intentional, but parallels to the 1941 surprise attack must have been.

Everyone knows what happened after that attack, and how Japan rebuilt its economy from the ashes of World War II. Less well known is that Japan also rebuilt its military to become a sleeping giant in its own right, with more troops, tanks, submarines and fighter planes than Britain, France or Italy.

Such strength is awkward in light of Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, which renounces “war…and the use or threat of force as a means of settling international disputes” and declares that “land, sea and air forces…will never be maintained.” Officially, Japan doesn’t even have a “military.” Instead, it has “Self-Defense Forces” (SDF), the legitimacy and uses of which are well-worn topics of debate in Japan.

On constitutional grounds, Japan contributed money rather than troops to the 1990-91 Gulf War, only to find itself criticized for “checkbook diplomacy.” Therefore, when the U.S. began fighting the Taliban in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, Japan dipped a toe in the water by sending Maritime Self-Defense Force (MSDF) ships to support the U.S. Navy with refueling operations in the Indian Ocean – an active role, but deliberately far from combat.

The Indian Ocean program lasted eight years. It ended after the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party lost power in a 2009 election and a new government under the generally more dovish Democratic Party of Japan declined to renew the legislation that authorized it.

The new government also threw into disarray a previously agreed plan to relocate the U.S. Marine Corps’ Futenma Air Station within Okinawa Prefecture, a cluster of small southern islands crowded with U.S. bases. The benefits of the U.S. military presence accrue to Japan as a whole, but the burdens fall mostly on Okinawa. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ prime minister, wanted the air station relocated out of the prefecture altogether.

Even as the Futenma issue strained U.S.-Japanese relations, China—whose military has also grown along with its economy—began aggressively asserting claims to Asian waters where other countries have long-standing interests. Recent provocations include 2010 and 2011 incidents in which Chinese Navy helicopters buzzed MSDF ships while Chinese warships passed between remote Japanese islands. A Chinese fishing vessel in disputed waters even rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships in 2010. The fishing captain was arrested but quickly freed in a political move that did little to placate China, which temporarily cut off vital exports of rare earth minerals to Japan in apparent retaliation.

While such incidents make Japan’s civilian leaders appear feckless, the status of the military has been growing. In 2007, the once lowly Japan Defense Agency was upgraded to a cabinet-level Ministry of Defense. In 2011, Japan established its first overseas military base since the end of World War II, an outpost in Djibouti charged with fighting piracy near Somalia. SDF personnel have also joined U.N. peacekeeping operations in places like South Sudan, even if the infrastructure projects they are working on there are distant from violent border areas. And after last year’s horrific earthquake and tsunami, SDF rescuers were virtually the only arm of the government whose actions earned widespread public approval.

U.S. forces also lent a much-appreciated helping hand after the 2011 disaster, and their cooperation with the SDF is set to grow stronger. A breakthrough in negotiations last month will likely lead to the transfer of 9,000 U.S. Marine Corps personnel out of Okinawa, though many will remain (and the Futenma issue is still not fully resolved). As part of the deal, Japan will help to pay for facilities for the shared use of U.S. and Japanese forces in U.S. territories such as Guam and Tinian Island.

The two nations’ military forces were on alert together last month as they awaited the launch of a North Korean rocket. The SDF intended to shoot it down with Patriot missiles if it threatened Japanese territory. A U.S. satellite observed the April 13 launch, but the failed rocket blew up at such a low altitude that the curve of the Earth hid it from ground-based SDF radar. (In “Battleship,” the alien vessels are also invisible to radar, but Nagata devises a clever way to determine their locations – providing one of the movie’s best sight gags.)

On April 30, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and President Barack Obama met at the White House and expressed in a joint statement their commitment to ensuring “responsible and rule-based” use of the high seas and further strengthening of the U.S.-Japan alliance.

As if to put an exclamation mark on that statement, during Noda’s trip to Washington several Chinese Navy warships sailed unannounced through a narrow strait between Kyushu, Japan’s third-largest island (about the size of Maine), and Tanegashima, a smaller island that is the launch center for Japan’s space program.

Maybe it isn’t very likely that space aliens will invade the Earth using weapons derived from a Hasbro board game. But the United States and Japan teaming up to face a common threat at sea? That’s not so far-fetched.

Japanese curry: Asteroid memorial

April 5, 2012

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.

Spoiler-ful comments on “Shutter Island”

April 20, 2010

As described in my last post, “Moon” and “Shutter Island” are two excellent movies that have a surprising number of things in common. If you haven’t seen both films by now, go and do so immediately. You can read my dual review before or after you see the movies, but you should read the rest of this post only after you see them, because this is going to be full of spoilers, especially about “Shutter Island.”

You have been warned.

OK, those of you who are still here may recall that my review contained the line, “In both movies, the protagonists have high-stakes confrontations with themselves, and with the powers that be.” In many films, confronting yourself is a metaphor. But these two stories mean it literally.

“Shutter Island” presents the consequences of this confrontation with more dramatic impact. When the film begins, we and Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) believe that he as been sent to the island to investigate the disappearance of an inmate from its asylum for the criminally insane. He also secretly plans to find and confront another inmate, the man who killed Teddy’s wife.

But at the film’s climax, we learn that Teddy himself is the man who killed his wife. He did it for understandable reasons, as his wife had gone mad and killed their children, but the experience left him with such horrific memories that he retreated into a delusional world where he was the killer’s hunter and not the actual killer.

In an elaborate role-play therapy, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) allows Teddy the run of the island so that he can look into every nook and cranny until the realization that the imaginary killer is not there becomes inescapable. Dr. Cawley hopes this realization will help bring Teddy back to reality. If the plan fails, Dr. Cawley’s old-fashioned colleague Dr. Naehring (Max von Sydow) will lobotomize Teddy, an outcome the more progressive Dr. Cawley ardently wishes to avoid.

I read Dennis Lehane’s novel “Shutter Island” several years ago, and I recently got my hands on a new copy long enough to re-read the last chapter and a half. Just as in the film, Dr. Cawley succeeds in bringing Teddy out of his delusion in the penultimate chapter. But also as in the film, Teddy appears to have a relapse soon afterward, and the last thing we see is Dr. Naehring and his orderlies approaching with a shiny set of lobotomy tools wrapped in a white towel.

Alas, poor Teddy!

But the movie goes one step further than the book, adding a single line of dialogue that changes everything. Just before he is led away, Teddy turns to a third doctor whom he knows as Chuck (played by Mark Ruffalo) and asks, “Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”

In other words, Dr. Cawley’s plan has not failed after all. But having been “cured,” Teddy does not want to live with the knowledge of what he has done, and freely chooses to have himself lobotomized by pretending to remain delusional. His rhetorical question is a wink on the way to the gallows.

Chuck, the only one to hear it, is left stunned and speechless. He thinks he knows what Teddy is up to, but he doesn’t know what to do about it. (And whether knowing the truth would make any difference to Dr. Naehring is an open question. He could argue that the lobotomy is justified by necessity on one hand, or consent on the other.)

Teddy’s choice is both magnificent and horrifying.

The film’s writing credits are shared by Lehane and Laeta Kalogridis. Whichever of them came up with that closing line should get a medal.

“Which would be worse, to live as a monster or to die as a good man?”