September 11, 2005

Lost on location


There's nothing about Into the Sun--a patchwork of action hero cliches rolled off the direct-to-video assembly line--that makes it worth recommending as a "theatrical" experience. Yakuza this and Triad that and CIA here and FBI there and a bunch of pointless murders and finally Steven Seagal gets pissed and kills everybody.

Unfortunately, he jumped that shark about a decade after making his one truly decent flick, Under Siege.

Still, you've got to admire an actor who knows his niche, sticks to it, and stays busy doing what people will pay him to do. But there's another reason to admire the movie, artistic considerations aside: it was made in Japan by somebody who knows something about Japan. It's depressing when you realize how rare this is.

I was living in Osaka when Ridley Scott made Black Rain, a ridiculously inaccurate depiction of Japanese law enforcement and a waste of the talents of the great Ken Takakura. (Japanese police enjoy a breadth of latitude in arrest and interrogation that would give an ACLU lawyer a coronary. It's no accident that Japanese prosecutors have a 98 percent conviction rate, and mostly from confessions.)

A far better Takakura police drama is Station, in which he plays a Japan Railways transit cop. Add to the list Mr. Baseball, oddly enough, one of the better American films about Japan and Japanese corporate culture. Yes, Mr. Baseball plays to comfortable stereotypes, but far more accurate and instructive stereotypes than the uninformed and self-important nonsense in Black Rain.

Still, when Black Rain came out, I was looking forward to seeing something of my old stomping grounds. I didn't recognize a thing. Why they came to Japan to do the film is beyond me. They could have shot it with a bunch of extras on a set in San Francisco.

Ditto, Tokyo. Lost in Translation isn't the complete waste of time that Black Rain is, but neither can I keep up my interest when show business types start making angsty, self-referential movies about each other (in other words, if you can't top All That Jazz, don't try). As Dana Stevens sums it up in Slate,

Is it simply laziness, the same dearth of ideas that leads movie producers to base movies on 30-year-old sitcoms that no one really liked in the first place? The power of plain old sloth should never be underestimated, but one other explanation may be a variant on the fiction-workshop cliche "Write what you know." Perhaps industry types can only satirize what they know and loathe--themselves.

Like Black Rain, Lost in Translation is another movie made in Japan that has very little Japan in it. Again, it could have been shot on a soundstage and a couple of days at the New Otani Hotel in LA's Little Tokyo. Or just a second unit and a green screen.

Japan is supposed to be "Buddhist monks chanting, ancient temples, flower arrangement," Kiku Day wryly observes. Indeed, the movie comes across as director Sofia Coppola whining for 100 minutes that Japan didn't stay stuck in the 17th century like in the postcards, and pointing her finger like a kindergartener at the naughty Japanese not conforming to stereotype.

Into the Sun, on quite the other hand, takes us into Tokyo, through Tokyo, above Tokyo, and not the tourist trap enclaves that Lost in Translation conveniently sticks to. It's working-class Tokyo, the cramped little shops and narrow back alleyways.

To top it off, Steven Seagal has an excellent grasp of the language. At times the accent disappears completely--at least to my gaijin ears. They leveraged this nicely. A few early exchanges to establish that Seagal can talk the talk, and then (in scenes with native Japanese) Seagal would speak English and whomever he was speaking to would speak Japanese. It sounds goofy, but it worked for me.

It's a lot better than forcing Japanese actors to struggle though English dialogue. This ain't Shakespeare, but better that one's acting skills be spent on acting than trying to badly pronounce a foreign language. (In the interactions between Chinese and Japanese characters, they resort to English, which is indeed painful to listen to.)

Plus, Seagal's martial arts training permits him to move his hulking presence through the frame without looking like a timid bull in a China shop. Though I wish he would give up the guns 'n yakuza material and try something a bit quieter and more cerebral on for size. Say, a Chandler-esque detective solving gaijin crimes in Tokyo. Just rip off Sujata Massey's oeuvre. Seagal could make it work.

Related posts

Dances with Samurai
Japan's Bond legacy
The Pacific War on screen

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