“Japanese space engineers could just possibly be the most boring people on the face of the Earth,” laughed an aeronautics engineer working for JAXA (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency), during a brief interview with The Japan Times.
The chat took place just after a major industry screening of the much touted, long-awaited movie “Hayabusa.” The film is about a successful Japanese space explorer vehicle that shot off in 2003, reached the asteroid Itokawa (named after professor Hideo Itokawa, the country’s revered father of rocket science) and brought back a stone sample from its surface.
The engineer (who didn’t want his name published) made the observation not in the spacious screening theater in downtown Tokyo but at the Tsukuba Space Center some 200 km away.
“Some of us got invitation cards for this event,” he said. “But as it turns out, it’s impossible to get away from work on a weekday. The life of a space engineer consists of work, work and more work. And after some years, we’ve turned into a bunch of boring guys!”
This self-deprecation is part of what drives the Japanese space industry and Yukihiko Tsutsumi — the director of “Hayabusa” — plays on its subtleties. After years of lagging behind NASA in rocket development, still unequipped to foster Japanese astronauts at home, and permanently strapped for government funding, Japanese space engineers have been holding the wrong end of the stick for decades.
“We have the technology,” said the JAXA engineer. “We have the people. We have determination. But the whole industry is burdened by a lack of wherewithal and good PR.”
In the summer of 2010, JAXA was pushed to the front lines of the Japanese news media when the agency announced the success of the Hayabusa mission. The Japanese public had been starved for a piece of good news that would boost general morale and, perhaps, stimulate the stagnant economy. The story of a little metal vehicle completing a complicated, never-before-attempted mission in space made hearts soar.
Hayabusa was launched on a shoestring budget, was fraught with problems and was even lost in space for several weeks before JAXA finally located it. All in all, it took seven long years for the vehicle to make a 6 billion-km round trip to Earth and deliver the asteroid rock sample. Apart from the capsule containing the sample, Hayabusa itself burned to ashes upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere — a finale that appealed in particular to the Japanese psyche.
Producer Kiyoshi Inoue had been following the Hayabusa project since the spring of 2010, just at the time when the JAXA team was moving heaven and earth to bring the vehicle back. Inoue had never been into space matters, but he had an instinct for stories and, for him, “Hayabusa” represented all that had been lacking in Japanese cinema.
“On the surface, it’s just a bunch of engineers working their butts off: no celebrities, no glamour. But there was sincerity and passion and a gung-ho, never-give-up spirit behind it all. In many ways, the Hayabusa mission showed up JAXA at their finest hour.”
Inoue’s words echo another space movie — Ron Howard’s “Apollo 13” (1995) — which was also about a mission that nearly failed, and the astronauts making it back to Earth was nothing short of a miracle. Ed Harris played NASA flight director Gene Kranz, and in the film he also describes the almost-aborted mission as “our finest hour.”
Inoue was struck by the similarities of the two stories, and was intrigued by the quiet determination shown by both NASA and JAXA scientists. Quoting a famed line by Itokawa, Inoue remarks: “The history of the space industry is a history of failure. Not just in Japan, but all over the world. Everyone who attempts it meets with incredible challenge and often experiences crushing disappointment.”
Indeed, just before the launch of Hayabusa, JAXA had been forced to abort an explorer mission to Mars. Hayabusa had been the agency’s bid for redemption, and to heighten public awareness of the inherent possibilities of Japan’s space technology.
Inoue’s stroke of brilliance was that he suggested the “Hayabusa” movie, not to a Japanese distributor but to Sanford Panitch who runs Fox International Productions. Fox had been interested in launching a localized Japanese production and the topic reminded him of other successful space pictures.
“Space stories have tremendous appeal, and not just because of the futuristic and/or action factors,” Panitch says. “Sure, there are movies like that, and they are wonderful. But a large number of people want to see things like team spirit, or a group of people getting together to pull off something fantastic. And these days, that stage is more likely to shift to outer space. The space industry is still young, and has infinite possibilities.”
In the film, the main character/narrator Megumi Mizusawa (Yuko Takeuchi) is a space geek working on her academic dissertation while putting in marathon hours at JAXA for virtually no pay. She’s plagued by an inferiority complex (everyone else at JAXA has a Ph.D) and is unable to tear herself away from the Hayabusa project.
“Hayabusa” is not a documentary, but between producer Inoue and director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, they decided to make the story an approximate version of the truth, by having the characters assume the conversational tones and mannerisms of real-life JAXA employees. Megumi is the exception — she’s an amalgam of many JAXA women. But in some ways she seems the most real, and she’s certainly the most vulnerable. Apart from her, the rest of the cast resemble the real-life people their characters are based on (the names have been changed). Much of the dialogue is based on what those people actually said at the time, and though there was some worry that the lines were too dry and unemotional, Inoue pushed for authenticity.
“I wanted to show the world the atmosphere of the Japanese workplace, and the real lives of Japanese scientists,” Inoue says. “It’s not just that they live for their jobs. They live for a sole mission or even a single question. Everything else becomes secondary.”
Unlike U.S. space movies, “Hayabusa” doesn’t have the remotest trace of anything romantic. (Heck, even Tom Hanks’ character in “Apollo 13” had wife issues.) If the characters are interesting, it’s because they’re so engrossed in work that their sheer dedication becomes a fascination. Megumi may be fictional, but as a JAXA employee she’s totally believable, and the way she displays no interest in anything besides the Hayabusa mission, her dissertation and her tasks at JAXA, is not only instructional, it’s even a little scary.
Yuko Takeuchi who plays Megumi with stunning drabness is one of Japan’s most treasured screen beauties but she succeeds in muting every aspect of her physicality. Wearing frumpy clothes and glasses and being utterly academic, Takeuchi as Megumi takes geek dedication to new frontiers and hardly takes time out for meals, unless it’s instant noodles slurped in a JAXA building corridor.
The rest of the cast boasts mega star wattage, such as Shingo Tsurumi, Masahiro Takashima and Koji Yamamoto. It wouldn’t be entirely out of place if one of these gentlemen asks Megumi out to dinner, or at least sends her flowers to thank her for all her efforts, or something. Doesn’t happen. Why not? “I think scientists are like that,” Panitch says. “These people go beyond being a team, they’re a tribe. And it would be wrong to apply the standards of nonscientists to these men, who live by different rules. Otherwise, science wouldn’t have come this far. The space industry wouldn’t have come this far.”
Megumi has one moment of emotional weakness — when a fellow scientist tells her he must leave the team and transfer to another project. She breaks down and weeps a little, but in the next second she’s already rummaging in her bag for her electronic dictionary, eager to look up the meaning of a parting word he tossed off that sounds unfamiliar to her. Inoue said that for him, this was one of the most powerful scenes in the movie.
“It shows the very essence of the Japanese scientist spirit, and demonstrates the strength of Japanese technology. These people never stop learning or researching — they have an indomitable will to know and to keep knowing, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant a piece of information is.”
And as “Hayabusa” so eloquently demonstrates, the gradual pileup of research and accumulated bits of knowledge is what ultimately sent the craft hurtling into space, and drew it back to Earth.
“Hayabusa” opens in theaters nationwide on Oct. 12.