Movies, producer Naoya Narita once told me, are news. The problem is, real world news moves fast — and films often have a hard time keeping up. One notorious example is the 1988 “Rambo III,” which sent Sylvester Stallone to battle the Ruskies in Afghanistan — just as the real Russians were clearing out of the place.
Sometimes, though, a movie hits the news wave just right. A few years ago, when the world was a slightly more peaceful place, Junji Sakamoto’s “Kono Yo no Soto E (Out of This World),” a film about Occupation-era Japanese jazzmen, might have looked like another exercise in postwar nostalgia. Today, though, with another war-torn country making a halting transition from dictatorship to democracy under the watchful eye of the U.S. military, it looks prescient and timely.
But for all the commonalties between the present occupation of Iraq and that of Japan half a century ago, the differences, Sakamoto shows us, are stark. Instead of plotting violent resistance against American troops, Sakamoto’s heroes entertain them with that most American of music — jazz — while eating their hamburgers and drinking their Coca-Cola. Meanwhile, certain of their female acquaintances are getting to know the Americans in more intimate and immediately profitable ways.
Iraqi resisters — Baathist remnants or otherwise — might argue that they have more pride, but Japanese of the time were a very different people facing a very different situation. Many had been reduced to beggary or were simply disgusted with an ideology that had wasted millions of lives in a disastrous war. Following the collapse of prewar values, not to mention the economy, self-preservation became the first imperative. For Sakamoto’s heroes, jazz is a survival tool — as well as the sound of a new, freer world.
In telling their story, howeve, Sakamoto makes cultural and historical missteps. His American soldiers are little better than stick men who talk in cryptic cliches and leap to attention at the sound of “The Star Bangled Banner” in the midst of a barroom brawl. Also, blacks and whites mix in ways seldom seen in the far more segregated America of 1947.
That said, he understands the harsh realities of the postwar world better than certain of his directorial elders, who tend to film it in the warm, hazy glow of remembrance. His jazzmen may be in their early ’20s, but they are wised up beyond their years. This is not just an attitude; it comes from a dark, conflicted place that most young Japanese actors can barely imagine, let alone access. Thus Sakamoto’s wise decision to cast actors in their 30s, who can better understand the characters’ feelings, including the regret for wasted time that will never return.
The film begins with a jazz band hopping aboard a truck to a gig at an enlisted men’s club. Kentaro Hirooka (Masato Hagiwara) is a tenor sax man who used to play with a Japanese Army band. Ichijo Hirayama or “Joe” (Shunsuke Matsuoka) is a bass player and Kentaro’s sempai. Akira Ono (Jun Murakami) is a piano player from a brass band. This trio is joined by a nervous new drummer, Shozo Ikeshima (Joe Odagiri), and a cool-but-silent trumpeter, Hiroyuki Asakawa (Mitch), who plays for a country band.
Shozo, it turns out, can only play taiko — Western-style drumming is a mystery to him. He is also a newcomer to the world of the U.S. Army clubs, with their all-American food, music and atmosphere. But the pay is good — and for that he can learn quickly. There is another incentive — Jim (Peter Mullan), the club manager, who has the power to hire and fire and knows real jazz when he hears it. Since the boys aren’t up to snuff yet, they play “Danny Boy,” which soon has Jim, who lost his own son Danny just the year before, weeping buckets.
Somehow the band, now named the Lucky Strikers, scrapes by and adds another member, Hiroyuki, who is tired of blowing fiery jazz riffs to country tunes. But they realize they still have a long way to go to true jazzdom, especially when Russell (Shea Whigham), a hard-bitten veteran with no love for the Japanese, steps up to the bandstand with his tenor sax and blows Kentaro away. Kentaro is angered by this humiliation — and his show of spunk brings a flicker of respect to Russell’s mocking eyes. Could this be the beginning of something big?
Maybe, but first the film has to work its way through several subplots, including Joe’s testy relationship with his “Red” older brother, Akira’s long, fruitless search for his homeless kid brother, Hiroyuki’s dangerous addiction to speed, and Shozo’s clumsy infatuation with a fresh-faced girl singer.
Sakamoto resists easy melodramatic payoffs, instead paring performances and dialogue down to the gritty minimum, while allowing for flashes of sardonic humor and explosions of stifled rage. Matsuoka is particularly good as a bass player who is still in love with the music, but hating the Occupation that brought it — and nearing emotional meltdown from the contradictions and frustrations of his life.
The relationship between Hagiwara’s and Whigham’s characters is the film’s crux, however — and here Sakamoto cuts too close to the bone. Hagiwara, who usually plays nice-guy roles, shows a credibly tougher side, while Whigham has the looks and coiled power of the young Michael Douglas, minus the arrogance. But Whigham rarely gets to do more than be cryptic and grim, while Hagiwara seldom interacts with his American rival, then friend, on a simple human level — he always seems to be looking down at him from the bandstand. When, at the end, war separates them again, the pathos that is supposed to descend is nowhere to be found.
Still, Sakamoto captures something of the atmosphere of the Occupation days, an atmosphere all but vanished in today’s Japan. Will an Iraqi director, some 50 years on, look back to today’s Iraq with the same mix of sidelong affection and rueful insight? Perhaps, but his characters probably won’t be rappers entertaining the American military.