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Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2005
Nation needs you
The current spate of Japanese war movies -- "Lorelei," "Sengoku Jieitai" and now Junji Sakamoto's "Bokoku no Aegis" -- is a curious phenomenon. All three are based on novels by Harutoshi Fukui, who is not a strutting military fan boy a la Tom Clancey, but rather a mild-mannered pop fiction writer with a nose for the zeitgeist. Also, all aspire to being Hollywood entertainment, in everything from their out-size (for Japan) budgets to their theater-rattling sound effects. The producers of "Aegis" went the extra mile of hiring veteran Hollywood composer Trevor Jones ("The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen," "From Hell," "13 Days") for the soundtrack. In other words, they are targeting a wider audience than the boys on the sound trucks and the dwindling band of white-haired war nostalgists.
At the same time, they clearly reflect the rising local tide of nationalist sentiment, with their message, stated or implied, that Japan has the right and duty to be a "normal" country again -- and thus actively defend itself against its enemies. Unlike the Japanese war movies of a decade ago, made to mark the 50th anniversary of the end of the Pacific War, they are not cinematic memorial services, but calls to arms in the here and now, even if they are set in the distant past.
"Aegis" is a feature-length recruiting poster for the Maritime Self-Defense Force, made with full cooperation of the MSDF, including the use of a real Aegis-class escort.
Not surprisingly, the Asian, and particularly Korean media, started ringing alarm bells about the film's alleged hawkish tendencies while it was still in production.
But unlike the clearly defined us-vs.-them story-lines of such Korean blockbusters as "JSA," "Silmido" and "Brotherhood," "Aegis" is cagey about the identity of its bad guys -- terrorists who take over the escort with the aid of mutinous crew members. It's obvious that they are North Korean agents (one is played by Korean actress Choi Min-Seo), but they give little indication that they are fighting for the greater glory of the DPRK. Their leader speaks only Japanese, with a suspiciously native fluency. (Choi, though featured prominently in the film's PR materials, gets zero lines, in Korean or otherwise.
Also, in place of the hard-edged, hyperrealistic action of so many Korean war movies and political thrillers, "Aegis" recycles action tropes from "Die Hard,," and other familiar Hollywood sources, ranging from the tiresome to the laughable. It's the difference between films made by people living in a militarized society and trained in warfare (military service is still mandatory for young Korean men), and those filmed by folks whose ideas about armed conflict come mostly from movies and whose culture is still largely in denial about its militarist past. Though the terrorist leader gives his Japanese enemy what he proclaims is "a real taste of war," what we see on the screen is almost entirely fantasy, with about as much relation to real-life terrorist fighting as a Godzilla installment.
As the film begins, an Aegis-class escort, the Isokaze, is about to sail on a training exercise, with members of the Fleet Training Group on board, led by the grim-visaged Mizoguchi (Kiichi Nakai). But once the Isokaze is at sea, we learn that a band of mutineers, led by second-in-command Miyazu (Akira Terao), has killed the captain.
With the aid of the FTG officers -- foreign agents in disguise -- they quickly take over the ship, which is carrying a secret biological weapon able to devastate Tokyo with a one-liter bomb. After sending the loyal crew members overboard, they issue a de facto declaration of war to the Japanese government and, using the Isokaze's super-advanced radar system, easily obliterate a ship sent to stop them.
As the Isokaze plows toward Tokyo Bay -- and its date with destiny -- the defenders of the nation, from the gruff Prime Minister (Yoshio Harada) to the earnest chief of the Defense Agency Information Section (Koichi Sato), who is monitoring the Isokaze's progress, agonize over the alternatives. The bureaucratic wrangling that ensues is the most realistic part of the film -- though the overwrought jawing slows the action to a crawl.
Meanwhile, a plucky NCO named Sengoku (Hiroyuki Sanada) has reboarded the ship and made an ally of a conflicted young seaman (Ryo Katsuji). But how can the two of them overcome the entire crew, including a female agent (Choi) with a superb command of the deadlier martial arts?
The answer should be obvious to any fan of Bruce Willis, Steven Seagal -- and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Sanada and Katsuji -- a steamy-eyed newcomer who is one of the film's more inspired casting choices -- acquit themselves well enough in the action scenes, but their feats of derring-do become incredible -- and finally absurd. Falls, blows and bullets that would put the Terminator into a coma slow them -- but can't stop their quest for righteous victory.
But what are they and their opponents really fighting for (or against)? Similar to prewar army officers who mounted coup after failed coup to expunge what they saw as Western corruption and decadence from Japanese politics and society, the mutineers yearn to awaken their slack, apathetic countrymen from their long dream (or rather delusion) of peace.
Meanwhile, Sanada's Sengoku is like a latter-day tokkotai ("special attack") pilot, an exemplar of sincerity and self-sacrifice, battling on little more than guts and fumes. Admirable to many in the local audience no doubt, but Asians who have different memories of Japanese military zealotry may be less inclined to cheer.