Film / Reviews

'Earthquake Bird': A solid adaptation, but no high flyer

by James Hadfield

Contributing Writer

Although it passed without much fanfare, this year marked the 30th anniversary of “Black Rain.” Ridley Scott’s Osaka-set cop thriller may have been absurd, but it still ranks as one of the high points in Hollywood’s on-off infatuation with Japan.

Scott is one of the producers of “Earthquake Bird,” Wash Westmoreland’s more low-key Netflix movie. Taking place in Tokyo in 1989, it even features a cheeky snippet of “Black Rain” that may tempt viewers to watch instead.

Based on a 2001 novel by former Japan resident Susanna Jones, this is yet another depiction of the country as seen through Western eyes, albeit with a more nuanced perspective than usual. Unlike the culture clashes of “Black Rain” and countless other films, including Netflix’s disastrous “The Outsider” (2018), the non-Japanese protagonist of “Earthquake Bird” is perfectly at home here.

Earthquake Bird (Asukueiku Bado)
Rating
Run Time 106 mins.
Language ENGLISH, JAPANESE
Opens NOW STREAMING

Lucy (Alicia Vikander) works as a translator and speaks Japanese fluently. She even eats the eyeball of a grilled fish she’s served for breakfast — how much more acclimatized can you get?

When she’s called in for questioning by police over a friend’s disappearance, her terse responses suggest she has something to hide. All is slowly revealed as the film rewinds to the start of her relationship with Lily (Riley Keough), a garrulous new arrival, who would be unbearable if it weren’t for Keough’s empathetic performance.

Lucy also recalls how she hooked up with Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi), a mysterious photographer who quickly becomes her lover. He’s tall and dashing, in a serial killer kind of way. They share their first kiss after he shows her photos of his deceased aunt in her coffin — as you do.

The film could easily have toppled into silliness, especially with lines like, “The first time we saw each other, I knew we could be truthful.” It’s held in check by Vikander’s brittle reserve; even when she’s about to remove her brassiere, she seems tightly buttoned down.

Much of the actress’s dialogue is in Japanese, and while she never sounds like she can actually speak the language, it’s a convincing effort. Kobayashi’s English line readings are a little stiff, but he has an easy charisma, and his striking presence suggests this won’t be the last time he appears in a Hollywood film.

What’s missing, though, is chemistry. The sparks only start flying when Lucy introduces Lily to her man; a scene of Keough and Kobayashi dancing together in a club is one of the juiciest in the whole movie.

As Lily and Teiji’s flirtation gets more serious, Lucy starts to come unravelled. Yet the mystery of whether she ultimately murdered her friend never really grips.

There’s a choppiness and impatience to the storytelling, with crucial scenes getting dispatched in a cursory fashion. Following recent reports that Netflix has been experimenting with faster playback speeds, Westmoreland seems to be doing the job for them.

“Earthquake Bird” evokes late-’80s Tokyo by sticking mostly to dowdy interiors and depicting street scenes in such shallow focus that you barely notice the modern signage. Cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon takes his cues from Teiji’s photography obsession, constantly framing the characters in mirrors and windows.

Like many Netflix originals, it applies an art house gloss to what is basically a solid Friday night movie. “Earthquake Bird” is no masterpiece, but at least it’s not “The Outsider.”