Japanese remakes of Hollywood hits hardly the way forward

by Mark Schilling

Hollywood has long been an enthusiastic remaker of foreign films, including ones from Japan. Kurosawa was an early favorite since his samurai could easily be repurposed as cowboys, beginning with “The Magnificent Seven,” the 1960 remake of “The Seven Samurai,” (1954).

J-horror was also once a fertile remake hunting ground, with the hit shockers “Ring” (1998) and “Ju-on” (“The Grudge,” 2002) getting Hollywood do-overs, but pickings have since become slimmer.

Now Hollywood, which has been losing its market share to domestic films in major territories around the world, has decided to join the competition by making local-language versions of its past hits. Disney, for example, is churning out international remakes of “High School Musical,” though Japan has been spared, so far.

Meanwhile, 20th Century Fox has partnered with Fuji TV to remake “Sideways,” the 2004 Alexander Payne dramady about two friends in their late 30s — a frustrated writer and a has-been actor — who go on a final fling in California’s wine country before the actor’s impending marriage.

Director Cellin Gluck
Run Time 123 minutes
Language Japanese, English

The new version, directed by Cellin Gluck from a script by Takayuki Uesugi, follows the outlines of this story, though the main location has changed from Santa Barbara to Napa Valley, on the grounds, as Gluck has explained in interviews, that the latter is more familiar to Japanese audiences.

This is pretty much the approach of the entire film, which rounds off the original’s rough (that is, interesting) edges, particularly Paul Giamatti’s prickly wine-snob writer, while re-engineering the story for Japanese tastes.

This makes box-office sense, since a direct translation of the original would jangle local sensibilities like merlot in a sake cup. Gluck’s “Sideways,” however, has a play-pretend quality, like the Japanese boomers who dud themselves up in cowboy gear to listen to Hank Williams tunes at a club in the Harajuku area of Tokyo. Not that there’s anything wrong with it — but you would never mistake it for the real thing, would you?

In the new film, Giamatti’s character, Miles, has become Michio (Fumiyo Kohinata), a scriptwriting teacher who has come to Los Angeles to attend the wedding of Daisuke (Katsuhisa Namase), a pal from his exchange- student days, now two decades in the past. Once the star of a popular kiddie show, “Captain Ninja,” Daisuke is now the manager of a restaurant owned by his American fiancee’s father. His rambunctious personality hasn’t changed, though, nor has his appetite for sexual fun and games.

But when Daisuke suggests a final bachelor debauch in Las Vegas, Michio counters with Napa Valley, a place dear to his oenophile heart. Then they learn that Mayuko (Kyoka Suzuki), an object of their unrequited love (Michio) and lust (Daisuke) in their student days, is working at a wine shop there — and it’s Napa or bust.

After visiting a few wineries, they run into Mayuko and her vivacious young friend Mina (Rinko Kikuchi), a barista at a local coffee shop. Mayuko is delighted to meet them, as is Mina — who was a big fan of “Captain Ninja” when she was a kid. Before long this quartet has paired off, with Daisuke enjoying the pleasure of Mina’s company — and bed, while Michio fumbles and stumbles around his true feelings for Mayuko.

Michio and Mayuko have a history — he was once her tutor and she still, ironically, calls him sensei (teacher). But much has happened since they were in their 20s in the 1980s, including broken relationships and disappointed dreams. Now Mayuko is determined to make a go of it in the States, though her boss wants her to open a branch in Japan. Michio, meanwhile, can’t understand the voluntary expat mentality — foreign adventures are nice, but why wouldn’t a Japanese want to live in Japan?

In other words, he serves as an audience stand-in, since the three other principals are Americanized types whose experience of self-expatriation is shared by relatively few Japanese. From the film’s perspective, though, they are to be envied, not pitied. Playing these expats, Kikuchi, Suzuki and Namase make speaking English with the natives and living in the pleasanter parts of California look, for the most part, like jolly good fun. And Michio, initially shy and hesitant — that is, the stereotypical Japanese guy on a foreign holiday — unwinds under their influence.

So, though Gluck’s “Sideways” is predictable and tame compared to Payne’s, its message of openness and tolerance is hard to fault. And if it lures more Japanese tourists to California, now an economic basket-case in desperate need of their yen, it is serving a useful purpose. I raise my glass to it — sideways.