History often repeats itself in the most interesting ways. In 1945, principal members of the Japanese government signed an agreement for total surrender of the country’s armed forces to the United States atop the famed USS Missouri battleship, also known as the “Mighty Mo.” Sixty-seven years later, audiences in Japan will see popular actor Tadanobu Asano stand on that same vessel — in the Hollywood action flick “Battleship.”
Directed by Peter Berg (“Friday Night Lights,” “Hancock”), “Battleship” the movie was inspired by the American board game of the same name. Like Monopoly, the Battleship game has been around for decades (in one form or another since before World War I) and has survived an onslaught of video arcades, game consoles and the all-consuming social-networking boom. Kids still play it (though obviously more in the United States than in Japan) and many adults over 40 can remember a time when the game provided many an ideal escape from a rainy afternoon.
Unmentioned in the production notes, however, “Battleship” the movie also pays tribute to last year’s U.S.-Japan military collaboration “Operation Tomodachi” (tomodachi means friend in Japanese), in which the U.S. Armed Forces came over to help the Self-Defense Forces working to clean up after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Asano plays a naval captain who teams up with an irascible U.S. Navy lieutenant (played by 31-year-old Taylor Kitsch) to fight foes from outer space. The pair don’t exactly start off on the right foot, but by the end of the film they forge a strong bond.
Asano, 38, is no stranger to action. The breakthrough role that put his name on the lips of critics worldwide was that of Ichi, the frenzied, guts-and-gore-drenched assassin in 2001’s “Ichi the Killer.” Since then, Asano has worked on other foreign films such as “Last Life in the Universe” (2001) by Thailand’s Pen-Ek Ratanaruang, “Mongol: The Rise of Genghis Khan” by Russia’s Sergey Bodrov (2007), and in last year’s “Thor” directed by British actor Kenneth Branagh. A Hollywood version of “47 Ronin,” in which Asano plays snarky samurai bigwig Lord Kira, is set to be released this winter.
“I always enjoy working with an international crew and director,” Asano tells The Japan Times. “But on the set of a Hollywood action film — now that’s a whole other world. The sheer grand scale of the way things are done over there makes me envious; it’s just so different from the way things are done in Japan.”
Asano says that the minute he set foot on the “Battleship” set, “joy and excitement shot through my whole body. There was just nothing like it.” The film afforded him a rare opportunity to deliver his lines in English and to engage in extended dialogue with a native speaker (actor Kitsch is Canadian).
“Sure, it was hard to get all my lines straight and a lot of the phrases were difficult to remember and repeat,” he says. “But I found myself relaxing instead of getting all tensed up. I think it was the atmosphere on the set. There wasn’t the same pressure that I usually feel when working on a Japanese movie set. On a Hollywood set, everyone seems more relaxed, ready to enjoy the work and learn from the experience.”
Kitsch is equally complimentary when it comes to talking about the experience of working with Asano, whom he affectionately calls “Tad.”
“Tad is really an ego-less actor,” he says. “It was fun to explore aspects of his personality while shedding light on his character. I think the story managed to highlight the fact that he wasn’t your typical Japanese officer, you know? The type you usually encounter in Hollywood war movies. But then neither was my character. We were both kind of badass, and the guy that I play, Alex Hopper, he had an insane arc to his personality that was really fun to project.”
Asano glows just as much when talking about working with Kitsch, saying he was an “observant actor” who pays attention to what his colleagues are doing.
“He really watched me,” Asano says about Kitsch. “He gauged my abilities, my lines and my role. It’s like he drew out all this material inside me that I didn’t really know I had.”
Asano says he was also surprised during filming when Kitsch inserted pauses during the dialogue scenes, leaving a tiny pocket of silence.
“I always thought the pause was a Japanese cinema thing, that we in Japan had the whole thing cornered! To see that happening in a Hollywood action movie was intriguing.”
Though Asano and Kitsch engage in many tête-à-tête scenes in the film, “Battleship” is of course action-heavy, and the two spend the greater amount of their screen time doing battle with aliens and getting roughed up in the process. Conveniently, the invaders from another galaxy drop in just as the U.S. Navy is engaged in RIMPAC (Rim of the Pacific Exercise) with a posse of other countries’ destroyer ships off the Hawaiian coast. Despite it being a simulation, the humans are in a fighting mood from the get-go; so when they spot a strange, metal structure tear out of the sky and join the ships on the ocean’s surface, their first move is to fire a missile at the thing and see what happens. Bad move. This offends the aliens big-time, and in their ensuing counterstrike, they show themselves to have weapons more deadly and sophisticated than anything in the U.S. Navy’s arsenal.
“Initially, we were a little worried that the U.S. Navy was going to come off as a little bad, because they struck first,” says director Berg. “But it was important to launch into the story quickly to get the ball rolling on the action scenes, because they are really state-of-the-art (engineered by visual effects company Industrial Light & Magic). I know some directors scoff at relying too much on digital effects, but what it boils down to is that these are the movies that have an enormous appeal with a global reach. And besides, pretty soon you see the malevolence of the aliens. Their intentions are never clear, which adds to the mystery factor.”
Speaking of which, Berg says that for him, Asano also possesses this kind of “mystery factor.”
“I am drawn to flawed heroes, who’re a little more complex and quirky than your run-of-the-mill superhero,” Berg says. “Tad exceeded that expectation — he’s real hero material, but he’s also very enigmatic. I understand that in Japan he’s also a rock musician! Anyway, he would show up on the ‘Battleship’ set in crazy hippie T-shirts that he designed himself, wearing flip-flops on bare feet. And then he would go into makeup and emerge as this ultra-correct, muscular naval captain, and that took everyone by surprise. He’s so hard to read, too, and can project nuanced moods. He’s not uptight, but he’s very serious and he also knows much more than he lets on. I’m told this is part of the Japanese national character.
“The movie benefits from that a lot. You come away with the feeling that this isn’t your ordinary Hollywood movie about aliens. And in my book, that is a very good thing.”
“Battleship” is now playing in cinemas nationwide.