Satellite's epic journey makes for lifeless cinema


When Hayabusa, a Japanese satellite sent to collect soil samples from a distant asteroid, returned safely to Earth in June 2010, many Japanese felt an excitement and pride more akin to a World Cup win than an event that, abroad, was a one-day news story to all but space geeks.

Why this should be so is the unspoken subject of Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s “Hayabusa,” one of three local films on the subject. (The biggest, a 3-D epic titled “Hayabusa: Haruka Naru Kikan” and starring Ken Watanabe, will hit theaters in February.)

An ungainly mix of tearjerking melodrama, manga-esque comedy and nerdy semi-documentary, “Hayabusa” isn’t very good, but it does amply illustrate why so many folks here became fascinated with the satellite’s epic seven-year journey.

Hayabusa’s accomplishments were both unprecedented and scientifically important. Other spacecraft had landed on asteroids, but none had come back with samples. Also, Hayabusa was the first spacecraft to operate its (locally designed) microwave discharge ion engines for more than 1,000 hours.

Here I had better stop listing firsts, since this is starting to sound less like a film review and more like one of the six articles on Hayabusa run in the U.S. magazine “Science.” Suffice to say that there was plenty to be proud of.

But where is the drama that non-space-techies can understand? The film’s producers have considerately provided a guide for the perplexed in the form of Megumi Mizusawa (Yuko Takeuchi), a space-obsessed girl who grows into a socially awkward, comically dorky PR staffer for the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) team that carries out the Hayabusa mission.

Failing to explain this mission to curious kids visiting a space museum (plain language not being her strong suit), Megumi begins drawing a manga that, transformed into realistic CGI segments and narrated by Megumi herself, cutely anthromorphize and simply explain Hayabusa’s journey. My fear of being overwhelmed by jargon gave way to the comfortable feeling of being back in sixth-grade science class, with better visuals.

Unfortunately, I also had to sit through the many scenes of JAXA folks, most wearing glasses if not pocket protectors, staring at screens, abstrusely puzzling their way through the many crises that plague the mission and, once in a while, celebrating their successes. In other words, “Hayabusa” is “Apollo 13” with the tech-speak but minus the life-or-death suspense (though it lulled me into thinking of Hayabusa as a sort of lost boy in space).

As Megumi, Takeuchi tries her darndest to inject life and laughter into this material, but as is often the case with actors in Tsutsumi’s films (see the hit “20-Seiki Shonen” [20th Century Boys]” trilogy for other examples), she goes flying straight over the top into gross, if charming, caricature. (Takeuchi can no more help being charming than a hamster can help being cute.)

Most of the actors playing the JAXA team are more tamped down, including Toshiyuki Nishida as an avuncular senior researcher who jousts with the bureaucracy over the project’s budget and Shiro Sano as the formidably brainy project manager who shows Megumi his human side.

But as usual with this sort of guys-(and a few gals)-on-a-mission movie, none of the portrayals go very deep. We’re invited to admire teamwork Japanese-style, with its gutsy, selfless persistence in the face of disaster, not to celebrate individuals.

The intent is no doubt to cheer and inspire a domestic audience still living with the consequences of a recent human-caused calamity. I suspect we’ll see much more of the feel-good same in the coming months: It’s a good time to embark on my own personal mission to Mars.