“Everybody knocks out a flop every now and then,” quipped Clint Eastwood during a recent interview to promote his latest movie, “The 15:17 to Paris.”
The film forms part of an informal trilogy dedicated to real-life examples of American derring-do, following on from “Sully” (2016) and “American Sniper” (2014). Yet it’s also the most experimental of the three, thanks to Eastwood’s bold decision to re-create the 2015 Thalys train attack — in which a trio of U.S. backpackers foiled a terrorist gunman — using many of the actual protagonists.
Six decades into his career, the filmmaker probably has better things to worry about than the opinions of a few critics, but the response to the movie has been overwhelmingly negative. Though a few writers have rallied to its defense, it has been widely lambasted as “dramatically inert” (The Guardian), “defiantly amateurish” (Time Out) and “too muffled and often too dull to make an impact” (The New Yorker). The esteemed French periodical Cahiers du Cinema, normally one of the director’s staunchest advocates, declared simply: “Eastwood’s latest is a shipwreck.”
In Japan, however, the critics are telling a different story. The official website for “The 15:17 to Paris” is festooned with blurbs from dozens of notable film writers, singing from a by-now familiar hymnal.
“At the age of 87, Eastwood is in a realm of his own, still reinventing the language of cinema,” says Koremasa Uno. “Are you a god?”
“An innovation in docudrama,” concurs Masamichi Yoshihiro. “I bow down before his directorial abilities.”
To say that Japanese critics have a bit of a thing for Eastwood would be an understatement. His films have topped the year-end poll in Kinema Junpo, Japan’s oldest and most respected movie magazine, an extraordinary eight times. Only one of his 14 flicks since 2000 has missed out on a spot in the top 10 — and no, it wasn’t “Hereafter.”
Kinema Junpo isn’t alone, either. Eastwood is also a six-time winner of both the Mainichi Film Award and Blue Ribbon Awards, which are voted for by critics, as well as the Japan Academy Prize, which appears to be chosen by throwing darts while blindfolded.
Anglophone critics still like to joke about Eastwood’s conservative politics and that thing with the chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, but in Japan he’s afforded far greater respect.
In a passionate defense of “The 15:17 to Paris,” published in i-D, Shinsuke Ohdera rails against his American counterparts for treating Eastwood as a “B-movie director cozying up to popular taste,” without acknowledging the complexity and ambiguity of his work. These are the qualities, he argues, that make Eastwood’s films “a perfect fit” for Japan’s distinctive critical culture; there’s nothing unusual here about a literary magazine mentioning him in the same breath as Jean-Luc Godard.
One distinctive trait of Japanese movie criticism that Ohdera doesn’t mention is that it has very little bearing on a film’s wider reception. “Jersey Boys,” Eastwood’s 2014 adaptation of the Broadway musical, snagged both the Blue Ribbon Award and the top spot in Kinema Junpo’s poll, but pulled in just $2.7 million at the box office — compared to $12 million for “Sully,” and $42.9 million for the Japanese-language “Letters from Iwo Jima.”
Without the burden of shaping popular opinion or answering to irate ticket buyers, film criticism in Japan tends to be pretty academic. One of the most influential figures in establishing Eastwood’s reputation has been the great scholar Shigehiko Hasumi, who has been championing the director’s work for decades. It was during Hasumi’s tenure as president of the University of Tokyo that Kinema Junpo really went all-in with Eastwood, proclaiming “Space Cowboys” the best international film of 2000.
That’s right: “Space Cowboys.”
In retrospect, the magazine may merely have jumped the gun by a few years. When Eastwood snagged Oscars for best picture and director for “Unforgiven” in 1993, few could have foreseen that he would repeat the trick a decade later, with “Million Dollar Baby” in 2005. Moreover, that was just one film in a remarkable late-career bloom that’s also included “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Mystic River,” “Changeling,” “Gran Torino,” “American Sniper” and “Sully.”
“Even Yasujiro Ozu and Alfred Hitchcock started imitating themselves toward the end of their careers,” movie critic Takeo Matsuzaki says. “Compared to them, Eastwood is still just as comfortable tackling contemporary or period material, and covering a wide range of genres, from human drama to science fiction.”
He explains that Kinema Junpo’s poll is compiled using a points system, so even if Eastwood isn’t many critics’ first pick for a given year, he may still amass enough votes to get to No. 1. But really: eight No. 1 films? Including “Jersey Boys” and “Space Cowboys”?
“I think it’s odd,” concurs online film critic Kei Onodera. “Obviously he’s a great director, and I rate him highly myself, but the support he’s had from Kinema Junpo does seem excessive.”
It doesn’t help that even Eastwood’s biggest fans sometimes struggle to pin down exactly what it is they like about him. In a 2016 article, Onodera compared it to the experience of eating at a dowdy-looking restaurant that turns out to serve sublimely good grub.
“There’s nothing ostentatious about his approach,” agrees film writer Mutsuo Sato, a self-professed Eastwood lover and Kinema Junpo hater. “People like Christopher Nolan and Paul Thomas Anderson are doing things that are more cinematically striking and using more state-of-the-art techniques. You could say that Eastwood is old-fashioned.”
“He means different things to different generations,” says Matsuzaki. Younger writers think of Eastwood principally as a director; older ones might more readily associate him with his screen roles in spaghetti westerns, or even with the “Rawhide” TV series that originally made his name. “He’s been all these things while staying at the forefront of the movie industry for half a century. … He’s a unique presence.”
Matsuzaki, incidentally, is one of the writers blurbed on the website for “The 15:17 to Paris,” where he predicts: “Clint Eastwood’s No 1 spot in the top 10 films of 2018 is already secure.”
For a film that’s currently rated 25 percent on the website Rotten Tomatoes, that seems like an outlandish claim. In Japan, however, it may turn out to be correct.
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