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Wednesday, June 22, 2005

SDF get new mission vs. samurai

Sengoku Jieitai 1549

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Masaaki Tezuka
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

When does a SF movie cross the border from the merely improbable to the absurd? In rare cases, such as Will Smith's dissing of a downed alien in "Independence Day," the joke is intentional. More often it is not. My own favorite is "King Kong vs. Godzilla," whose entire premise is ridiculous, not to mention blasphemous. Kong played by a guy in a monkey suit? An affront to everything Kong's creator, stop-motion genius Willis O'Brien, stood for.

News photo
Yosuke Eguchi in "Sengoku Jieitai 1549" (C)2005 SENGOKU JIEITAI 1529 FILM PARTNERS

The same cannot be said of "Sengoku Jieitai 1549 (Samurai Commando 1549)," a remake of Kosei Saito's 1979 film about a Self Defense Force unit that travels back in time to the days of the samurai. The original film was not a timeless classic, but rather an early, clunky example of superproducer Haruki Kadokawa's high-concept filmmaking. Sonny Chiba stars as the SDF unit commander, who bridles at not having a real war to fight and, on finding himself in the chaotic Warring States Period (1482-1558), decides to take over the whole country.

The new film by Masaaki Tezuka, who also directed three recent Godzilla installments, is different from the original in more ways than one. First, the story, by best-selling novelist Harutoshi Fukui ("Bokoku no Aegis," "Shusen no Lorelei"), is an extensive rewrite which incorporates some eyebrow-raising interpretations of the laws of physics. Second, much of the 1.5 billion yen budget has been spent on CG effects unimaginable in 1979. Third, with North Korea lobbing missiles in the direction of Tokyo and the SDF camped out in southern Iraq, the new film has a topical frisson the earlier one lacked. (In Chiba's day, North Korea was a million miles away from the lives of average Japanese and the SDF was little more than a glorified disaster clean-up crew.)

Made with the cooperation of the SDF, the film offers all the money shots of real helicopters, tanks and troop transports military hardware buffs, not to mention SDF recruiters, could desire. It also skips the boring exposition to plunge straight into the action. Wave after wave of samurai are blasted to writhing smithereens by modern firepower -- but the survivors charge on regardless. Meanwhile, the SDF troops take their share of deadly CG arrows. In other words, "The Last Samurai" redux, but minus Tom Cruise.

But there is more separating the two films than their production budgets ("The Last Samurai" cost 10 times more to make). In contrast to cinematographer John Toll's rich, painterly evocation of the samurai and their world and director Edward Zwick's elaborately choreographed, Kurosawa-inspired battle scenes, Tezuka and his cameraman plod from shot to conventionally middle-distance, blandly lighted shot, as if they were filming a "Mito Komon" episode.

The CG staff supplies neat effects, such as the SDF unit and all its hardware being whirled into the past like Dorothy's house in "The Wizard of Oz," but they cannot disguise the flatness of the proceedings. Instead of expressing awe and astonishment at the sudden appearance of 21st-century technology in their midst, Tezuka's samurai immediately go on the attack, like bad guys in a computer game. They are bold, skilled, cunning -- but have absolutely no imagination.

Meanwhile, the SDF heroes show little interest in their unusual situation; they are like salarymen sent on business to a dangerous Third World country, whose only concern is to make it back to the airport intact and on time. (Granted, they only have 74 hours and 24 minutes to complete their mission or be forever stuck in the past -- a disincentive to smelling the feudal-era roses.)

The story starts with a top-secret test of a new magnetic shield -- and a blunder by the second lieutenant in charge, Rei Kanzaki (Kyoka Suzuki), that sends the SDF unit reeling back in time. The SDF brass covers up the incident, but two years later the space-time continuum begins to warp, so they decide to dispatch a squad, code-named Romeo, to rescue the missing soldiers and save Japan (not to mention the planet) from being sucked into this void.

Squad leader Kashima (Yosuke Eguchi) is a reluctant warrior, as is his second in command, the grim-visaged Kanzaki, but when they finally travel back to 1549 they discover that the unit leader, Col. Matoba (Takeshi Kaga), has assumed the identity of a famous warlord and is planning to fast-forward Japan to world-power status. And if he is thwarted? Well, he has a city-obliterating secret weapon he would like to show you.

As pedestrian as "Sengoku Jieitai" is in the telling, it suggests questions that many Japanese, after the long sleep of Heisei peace, are now awakening to. Is there a role for the SDF outside Japan -- or is its foreign dispatch the first step down a slippery slope? Is there anything about this country worth fighting and dying for, beyond mere survival? Mainly, though, the film is bang-and-slash entertainment, with a plot driven by the same backward ticking digital clock found in a thousand Hollywood thrillers.

Among the standouts in the cast is Kazuki Kitamura, playing a samurai who time travels in the opposite direction and becomes a Romeo ally. After a long slog through the straight-to-video underworld, Kitamura is finally moving into the mainstream spotlight and showing he has the macho looks, presence and fighting chops to be an international action star. Most incredibly, he can even act. Watch your back Ken Watanabe -- you may not be the last samurai after all.

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