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Hadda put Tom in the front again, didya?

“The last Samurai” is not a perfect film, and I will be the first to agree that Tom Cruise tries to hog too much of the limelight here. But that aside, it’s a great actioner with astonishing visuals and, most importantly, great respect for its source material. I’ve heard it’s based in some part on the real-life exploits of a samurai called Saigo Takamori, who like Ken Watanabe’s character, was a real badass. They could really go anywhere from there, and it’s wonderful how the filmmakers create the start of the Meiji period in such detail, apparently down to the very last samurai weapon. But forget props–the cast is also full of real Japanese who add authenticity and gravity to what could be mere spectacle. Ken Watanabe (Batman Begins/Inception), Hiroyuki Sanada (Lost) and Koyuki, an actress and model famous in Japan, head the foreign cast. Also, despite his stubbornly modern approach to acting, Tom Cruise is pretty damn good in it too. This (not so) old Japan-hand gives this one my seal of approval. It’s only the first on my list of movies and shows that get Japan gloriously right!


Heroes, what HAPPENED to you?!

I know, “Heroes” started to suck after Season 1–I’m still smarting from the pain of it all. But you have to admit, that first season was a stand-up success–and one of the main reasons for that was Masi Oka, who played Hiro Nakamura during the series’ run. Oka was an asset not only because he created such a funny and endearing character, but also because of the authenticity (there’s that word again) that he brought to the role. I’ve known plenty of Japanese who are “otaku” (super-nerds), trapped in their busy lives with only their imaginations to escape into every once in awhile. Hiro’s obsession with American comics is kind of a stretch, but it could happen! His pal Ando (who is, incidentally, played by a Korean-American) is the perfect foil, I think.

It’s not just the people, but all the little production touches, that makes “Heroes” shine in the Japan department. Forcing normally stubborn international audiences to read subtitles during Japanese dialogue? Check. Trying to recreate little parts of Japan for flashbacks, time-jumps, etc.? Check. Bringing in the great George Takei at the end? Double check. “Heroes” shows Japan’s mix of coolness and innocence through character and story, without hitting you over the head.

I know that Masi Oka is actually fluent in Japanese and rewrote the dialogue for the show, which rocks. I’m also fluent, and I thought he sounded great. My Japanese wife was less impressed, but she gave Oka–and the show–points for trying.

Letters from Iwo Jima

I was stunned when I saw this film

I think my subtitle says it all. This was one of the most important films of the last decade for me, and not just because it was about Japan. The fact that Clint Eastwood, who is quintessentially American, could take such delicate subject matter and tell a tale about “the other side”–moving me to tears while still leaving me glad that the Japanese ultimately lost–is no mean feat. So many great Japanese actors, including the now-ubiquitous Ken Watanabe, make memorable appearances, but the real surprise is Kazunari Ninomiya in the title role. Ninomiya has apparently garnered praise for his acting within Japan before, but until “Letters” I knew him only as a pretty boy singer-dancer. He totally blew me away here. Unencumbered by English and aided by brilliant production and direction, everyone involved was able to shine. I’m tearing up just thinking about this, so I’m gonna stop now. Just see it. Trust me.


Yeah, I dug Lost…deal with it

“Lost” has its many detractors, it’s many haters who loved it up until the very last minute when they somehow failed to understand the ending and are now and forever pissed. Well, I am not one of those because (SPOILERS AHEAD, READ AT YOUR PERIL!) I get it.

In four short sentences: Everything was real, Jack’s dad said so. Everyone who died on the island actually died there, including Jack. Those who escaped on the plane at the end died later after living normal lives. Then they all met later in the sideways worlds, finishing their journey. Capiche? Phew, I feel better now. (SPOILERS OVER)

Anyway, for all the controversy it caused, Lost was very, very good for spotlighting ethnic and international actors, particularly Asians. The two Korean cast members (one was Korean-American, I believe) got to be Koreans–not Chinese, Japanese, Thai or “Asian.” Koreans, with Korean backgrounds and flashbacks in Korea with Korean cultural references. In season 6, Lost also put the spotlight on one of the coolest Japanese actors around, Hiroyuki Sanada. You’ve seen him in movies like “The Last Samurai,” but in case you don’t remember I’ve posted his pic.

This Sakamoto Ryoma poster has one up on The Last Samurai

He played Dogen, a super-secret member of The Others, who remembered playing baseball with his son before starting his weird quest. The part was brief but electrifying, allowing Sanada to use his near-fluent English in defiance of the typical stereotypes about “Asianized” speech. The part also required physical chops, which this guy can handle given his martial-arts background. He and others brought an international flavor to American television during Lost, and I am grateful for that.

Lost in Translation

“It’s Suntory Time!”

I go back and forth on this one. Sometimes I think it’s a blase portrait of loneliness in the big city that could have really been filmed in any city. Other times I am charmed by it’s portrait of Tokyo from a foreign perspective. For all it’s flaws, I must recommend “Lost in Translation” if not for the result than for the noble effort it makes to be something special. When Bill Murray steps out of the taxi in Tokyo, dazed by the neon strangeness of it all, I flash back 15 years (!!!) to when I first did the same thing! As the characters go about their dull lives, chafing against their unfamiliar surroundings, I remember how I felt at first. Yes, I concede, Japan can be utterly weird to newcomers. It can also be incredibly beautiful, as is evidenced by certain scenes filmed in Kyoto, etc. “Translation” may be a tribute to Japan, but it is one filmed at a distance by a stranger who visited once. From my decade-plus expat view, it’s hard to step back into those shoes again. But as a way to understand some of the allure of this place, it’s not a bad start.


Actually, the message was pretty clear to me

“Babel” is a film about lives that intersect across vast physical and cultural distances, where communication is often compromised especially with those closest to you. Everyone gives stellar performances, but I have to hand it to Rinko Kikuchi (Wolverine), who is absolutely stunning as a deaf young Japanese girl. Her father, played by Koji Yakusho, also gives a compelling if brief performance. The Japanese scenes in this film feel as if cut from a longer, fully Japanese venture, a film I would have liked to see. Yakusho hasn’t made too many forays into Hollywood, possibly preferring his native turf; but I suspect we will continue to see Kikuchi do her thing internationally.

Star Trek

Yes, John Cho rocks, but…

…George Takei is the man!

Last but not least on my list is “Star Trek,” a series which hardly needs explanation. Star Trek is my hands-down favorite franchise of all time, ’nuff said. And one of it’s actors, the great George Takei, will forever be immortalized as Hikaru Sulu, the lieutenant who went on to become a captain in Starfleet. Bare-chested sword-running aside, Takei portrayed Sulu with both gravity and humor, not an easy thing to do. Just a little fun fact: The name “Sulu” doesn’t really exist in Japanese! The word itself exists, but as “suru,” which means, “to do.” So when they show Star Trek over here, I think his name is Sato or something. Can’t be sure, but I heard that Gene Roddenberry named him after a body of water, the Sulu Sea, as a way to represent Asia as best he could at the time. Well, almost 50 years on, I think he did a bang-up job of it.

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