Another DVD I rented was a Japanese science fiction flick that got a lot of play in Japan. Returner turned out to be much better than I had anticipated. It was supposedly produced in an attempt to avoid the serious, artistic films such as Maboroshi or AfterLife, and create something that resembles the US blockbuster, action flick, so popular in Japan. It’s not great by any means, but my expectations were so low that it turned out to be quite entertaining. The movie is influenced by films that should be familiar to most of us. *Warning! Warning! Possible spoilers dectected* It is the future and the world being destoyed by aliens in fast photon-shooting ships (reminiscent of Independence Day). For good measure, some ships are disguised as regular planes to infiltrate humans holed up in Tibet, then transform into shrimp-bent baddies (remember The Transformers?). They decide that the only way to save themselves is to travel to the past and prevent the war from happening in the first place (Terminator). The time machine is incomplete but someone has to go, and a ragamuffin young girl is the last chance as the aliens enter the cave where humanity makes its last stand. She travels into the past and falls right in the middle of a fight between a Miyamoto (Kaneshiro) who is seeking revenge on a Chinese/Japanese mobster-connection thug named Mizoguchi (Kishitani). Miyamoto kicks but in regular and slow motion, and Mizoguchi escapes. In the process, however, Miyamoto accidentally shoots the girl, Milly, and they hook up. She tries to explain to him that she’s from the future, but he’ll have none of it, so she proves it with her slow-time-down-watch that makes her rund in super speed while everything else seem to be stopped (Matrix). After Miyamoto becomes a believer, they go to the reserach center where the first alien is being kept, the alien suspecte of starting this whole war in the future. But when they finally get to this small creature with huge eyes, all he (it?) want to do is “go home” and tries to connect with these kind humans (E.T.). Get the picture?
This movie has gotten a load of bad press, and because of its derivative nature, it is perhaps understandable. But there are two big things that they do not understand. Yeah, right, the O-man’s the only one who can see the light, hahaha, I’m so full of it. The Japanese–first in classical poetry, then in others genres from drama to narratives–make an art of “borrowing” from other sources. This is not meant to plagerize but to celebrate the past and to expand the meaning of present. In Returner, the connection is obvious to E.T., so while we have this warm and fuzzy image of ET in our mind, we are watching another alien being kept away from its mothership, and understand the wrath that could befall mankind if a Mizoguchi finds an alien rather than Elliott. This makes for a more complex viewing of the film, one that should make us think about different possibilities rather than deride the copying. And indeed, copying from an obvious source is crucial, as Fujiwara Teika once wrote. If the reference was obscure, what effect would it have? In the West, this technique is usually reserved for spoofs such as MAD Magazine or The Simpsons. But in Japan, it is an artistic technique.
The other thing these critics are missing is the comic book aspect. Many of them made reference to anime, but this is definitely a comic book movie. Many of the scenes are “frozen” as if they were a cell straight out of a manga (J comic books). There is one scene in which Miyamoto is shot in the street and the rain is falling down on him. The shot is taken from above with streams of rain falling down at an angle for a 3D effect toward the prone figure on the ground. And what is a movie but a 2D photograph in motion. This is classic comic book technique to provide depth perception–a technique begun by Tezuka Osamu in the 50s and adopted by US comic book artists much later.
Anyway, I’m not trying to sell the movie. It wasn’t THAT good. But it can be better appreciated than the critics would lead you to believe. If you have a lazy weekend someday, it might be fun to watch.