Tag: Hiroyuki Sanada

Mr Holmes (2015)

Ian McKellen is an ageing Sherlock trying to understand his past in Mr Holmes

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Ian McKellen (Sherlock Holmes), Laura Linney (Mrs Munro), Milo Parker (Roger Munro), Hiroyuki Sanada (Taiki Umezaki), Hattie Morahan (Ann Kelmot), Patrick Kennedy (Thomas Kelmot), Roger Allam (Dr Barrie), Phil Davis (Inspector Gilbert), Frances de la Tour (Madame Schirmer)

It’s 1946 and over 35 years since Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellen) last investigated a case. Living in retirement with his bees in Devon, with his housekeeper Mrs Munro (Laura Linney) and her inquisitive son Roger (Milo Parker), 93-year-old Holmes’ final “case” is to try and combat the deterioration of his own mental faculties. This focuses on his attempts to remember the details of his final case, investigating the wife (Hattie Morahan) of a client, a case where he knows something went terribly wrong, but cannot recall the exact details.

Condon’s film is a quiet, gentle piece which primarily becomes a character study of the Great Detective, trying to locate the man inside the thinking machine. This is a Holmes unlike any other, haunted by past mistakes and scared of losing the intellectual abilities that have been his principal purpose. Condon’s film also makes clear that much of what we know about Holmes was a cheeky “embellishment” by Watson in his stories – from the pipe and deerstalker to the address of 221B. This is a Holmes who failed all his life to form personal connections, and found this problem magnified by becoming a real-life fictional character, a person who knows no-one but is known by everyone.

This fascinating re-evaluation of Holmes is helped by Ian McKellen’s superb performance (in his second collaboration with Condon after Gods and Monsters). McKellen’s ability to convey the intellectual sharpness of Holmes is matched by his vulnerability and fragility as he feels those same powers begin to fail. This is a Holmes who can still sharply deduce where someone has been from a quick analysis, but needs to write Roger’s name on his cuff to help him remember whom he is talking to. McKellen’s performance slowly reveals the longing for emotional connection and his own regrets at the isolation that has dominated his own life.

The expressiveness of Ian McKellen’s eyes comes into play here, both their capacity for joy – and this is a Holmes who takes an intense pleasure in his own acuity – and the way McKellen is able to allow these eyes to glaze over with forgetfulness and flashes of senility. He also forms a wonderful bond with Milo Parker (very good, genuine and real) as Roger, the two of them forming an odd couple relationship that also gives Holmes a beginning of an understanding of what he has missed from a life without family and friends. 

Alongside this fascinating character study, the actual storyline is fairly tame – but then that’s hardly the point. The modern day plotline takes in physical and mental decline, isolation, fracturing family bonds and post-war Japan (where Holmes travels in search of “Prickly ash” a plant he hopes will help to counteract his mental decline). But it’s really a quiet framework to change this Holmes into a man who sees the world only in terms of logic and puzzles, and must learn to see the humanity and emotions that underlie people’s actions. It’s a Holmes who must learn to appreciate feelings, to express them and to tell “white lies” to save people from pain.

It’s no surprise that the past sequences – where a spry McKellen also plays Holmes in his late 50s – also revolve around this. The investigation cheekily features spiritualism (the pseudo-science that obsessed Conan Doyle in his later days) but the real point is Holmes failing to understand the pain and loss that underlie the desire to believe in the possibility of life after death – that loss is a traumatic event that cannot be hand-waved away with a presentation of facts, but a has a real lasting impact on people. Hattie Morahan captures this wonderfully, in a quietly emotional performance as a grieving mother.

The final resolution of this I found slightly less satisfying – perhaps because I thought of actual “canon” stories that showed Holmes expressing far more emotional intelligence than this film gives him the credit for understanding here (e.g. The Yellow Face). I’m also not sure if this failure would really have left any Holmes punishing himself with 35 years of isolation with bees. But it fits with the film’s concept of a Holmes who finds himself pained by loneliness.

This loneliness is hammered home throughout. Mycroft, Hudson and Watson are long dead. Watson himself is implied to be a man who never understood Holmes, that the “fictionalised” Holmes became more real to him than the flesh-and-blood man. That on Watson’s part the friendship became about the stories, with Holmes always triumphant, rather than reflecting who he was. Holmes finds this disconnection between his inner self and the world’s perception hammered home at every turn – at one point the film shows him watching a Rathbone-esque film (where he is played by Nicholas Rowe, the actor from Young Sherlock Holmes), where the case that haunts him plays out with a traditional ease. Completing this disconnection, Watson remains unseen in the film: a stranger whom Holmes was tied to forever.

All this makes for a thought-provoking film, with a delightful performance from McKellen making a truly unique and original screen Holmes. There are a host of fabulous supporting performances – Laura Linney does fine work as his insecure, lonely housekeeper who feels she is losing her son to the detective – and the film is a gloriously entertaining Sunday afternoon treat, which will make you think again about a man whom the whole world knows, but who may not know himself.

Sunshine (2007)

Astronauts head out to restart the sun in Danny Boyle’s Sunshine

Director: Danny Boyle

Cast: Cillian Murphy (Robert Capa), Chris Evans (James Mace), Rose Byrne (Cassie), Michelle Yeoh (Corazon), Cliff Curtis (Searle), Troy Garity (Harvey), Hiroyuki Sanada (Kaneda), Benedict Wong (Trey), Chipo Chung (Icarus), Mark Strong (Pinbacker)

Spoilers: Last act surprises are discussed here. Although they did put them in the trailer at the time as well

What would we do if the sun decided to pack it in? To be fair, probably not build a bomb the size of Manhattan out of all the world’s fissile material and then fly it up to the Sun in a huge spaceship to jump start the sun’s core. Because that idea is pretty much like trying to restart a volcano with a match. To be fair, Professor Brian Cox (for it was he) did come up with an actual concept that did work – something involving a Q-Ball in the sun, whatever the hell that is – that the film never mentions. But then who really cares about the science, we only care about the simple idea of restarting the sun’s engine with a massive nuke. That’s an idea I don’t need a staff pass at the Large Hardron Collider to understand.

Mankind’s final fate is in the hand of a team pulled from across the world’s space agencies, with Professor Robert Capa (played by Cillian Murphy as a figure inspired heavily by Brian Cox himself in looks and style) as the boffin whose job is to blow the bomb when the time comes. The mission, Icarus II, is under the command of Captain Taneka (Hiroyuki Sanada), with engineer Mace (Chris Evans), pilot Cassie (Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh) whose job is to maintain the oxygen garden, psychiatrist Searle (Cliff Curtis), navigator Trey (Benedict Wong) and second-in-command and comms officer Harvey (Troy Garity). Entering the final days of the mission, near Mercury, the crew discover traces of the first missing mission that carried the first payload to restart the sun, Icarus I. Deciding two payloads are better than one, the crew divert to intercept – and of course from there everything slowly falls apart into increasing chaos, destruction and horror.

Boyle’s film was marketed as a sort of slasher-in-space – which to be fair it only really becomes in its final act, as the crew accidentally take on board captain of Icarus I, Pinbacker (Mark Strong), a man driven mad by proximity to the sun, deluded in the belief that it is God’s will that mankind perish with the sun. In fact for the bulk of its runtime – and its primary themes – are really about the psychological impact of prolonged isolation in space with only a small group of people for company (a heightened submarine claustrophobia), the dangers and damage that obsession can cause and the moral complexities that emerge when the fate of mankind is literally in the hands of eight people.

With an intelligent script by Alex Garland, Boyle’s film is smart, superior sci-fi which asks searching questions of how we might respond in the situations this crew are thrown into. How quickly would you make decisions about who is expendable and who is not when you are mankind’s last chance? How quickly would you be willing to sacrifice yourself? What moral qualms would you feel if the fate of the one was balanced against the many? And how are all these feelings heightened by the intense claustrophobia and isolation of prolonged space travel, interacting with the same few people day-in and day-out in a ship of which every inch you would be intimately familiar within the first few months of a mission lasting years?

It’s a wonder more people don’t go crazy in the film. Boyle’s film makes excellent use of the terrifyingly awesome, good-like power of the sun. Its rays are so intense at the range of the ship, that any exposure over about 2% of its full strength is lethal. But there is something about its mighty power, its all-consuming presence, that draws characters too it like moths to a flame. Psychiatrist Searle (impressively played by Cliff Curtis) already seems to be becoming slowly a slave to an obsession with our star, his skin peeling from too many hours in the ship’s solar observation lounge. Pinbacker (a curiously accented performance of intense insanity from Mark Strong) lost his mind in sun worship, his mind seemingly snapped by coming face-to-face with the powers of the heaven compared to the mini-presence of man.

But it’s that presence of mankind that drives the mission, and lies behind all decisions. Hard-ass engineer Mace (Chris Evans, very good) seems like a jerk, but he simply applies Spock’s maxim of the needs of the many to a logical extreme (correctly) objecting to every course of action that invites unknowns into the equation that endanger the mission. And Mace doesn’t hesitate at any time in the film when asked to balance his own safety against the success of the mission. Each crew member – with the exception of Harvey – places their own survival a distant second behind the completion of the mission, and the film is littered with moments of self-sacrifice and self-imperilment.

It’s this humanistic core to the film, of accepting the world is it and that mankind must be preserved within that, which leads to some of the film’s more weighted points around faith and religion. The film has little time for anything away from pure science, and an interest in higher powers and staring too closely at the bright light, is mixed in heavily with a dangerous fundamentalism that eventually leads to the film’s only spiritual figure Pinbacker becoming a psychopath determined to follow what he sees as God’s plan at the cost of all human life. It’s not a subtle picture of religion – and the film could have balanced it with at least one of these characters expressing some faith in some sort of religion on the ship or gently questioning how humbling being this close to the face of God might feel. The film has no time for that.

But then I suppose this is really a psychologically intense mission film, a sort of big-themes action sci-fi that is the sort of ideas based film you wish was made more often. Boyle’s direction is pinsharp as always, and the moments of dreamy awe and shattering power of the sun (as bodies are vapourised, parts of the ship crumble) or the freezing vastness of space (as one character discovers to their cost) provide a series of haunting scenes. Shooting Pinbacker with a juddering out-of-focus intensity – intended to ape the feeling of starring directly at the sun – is effective in making the character chillingly unknowable.  This moments work very well, as does the superb cast which has not a weak link among them (Cillian Murphy in particular anchors the entire thing extremely well). Sunshine is a thought-provoking and blistering science-fiction film that manages to balance big themes and ideas with horror house jumps and haunting moments of tension.

The Railway Man (2013)

Colin Firth is haunted by the past in The Railway Man

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky

Cast: Colin Firth (Eric Lomax), Nicole Kidman (Patricia Lomax), Stellan Skarsgård (Finlay), Hiroyuki Sanada (Takashi Nagase), Jeremy Irvine (Young Eric Lomax), Sam Reid (Young Finlay), Tanroh Ishida (Young Takashi Nagase)

There is perhaps nothing harder to do in life than to put the past behind you and forgive. We all seem to be hot wired to want revenge and to seek it against all odds. It’s rare indeed the man who learns to put the rage against the past behind him and to extend the hand of friendship.

Such a man was Eric Lomax (played here by Colin Firth). In the 1970s Eric meets and falls in love with Patricia (Nicole Kidman). The two are married, but Patricia soon discovers Eric is still plagued by memories of his imprisonment as a young man (played by Jeremy Irvine) by the Japanese during the Second World War, and in particular a prolonged period he spent being tortured by the Japanese secret police for building a radio. Lomax is unable to begin to talk about his experiences, even as trauma causes his life to deteriorate. Fellow ex-POW Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård – very good in a small but vital role) is the only one who has even the faintest idea of his experience, but cannot persuade him to even speak about his past or try and move on. After discovering his torturer Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is alive and well and working as a tourist guide in the very camp where Lomax was tortured, he travels to Japan, torn about what he should do.

Teplitzy’s film is powered by several marvellous performances, not least Colin Firth who is excellent in the lead role as the deeply repressed, tormented Lomax who in his heart has never left the prison where he suffered unbelievable torment. The film is a carefully structured, and deeply moving, character study of how atrocious and inhumane actions trap us all – both the victims and perpetrators – in patterns of suffering where we feel our own humanity drain away. Even handed, honest and generous, like Lomax’s book, it’s an engaging and moving tribute to the strength of the human spirit and our capacity for generosity.

Not least because when we finally meet the aged Nagase, he is far from the monster we expected. Like Lomax he too is haunted by the past, but where Lomax cannot escape the horrors he suffered, Nagase is plagued by guilt and disgust as he realises his actions as a young man were far from those of a righteous soldier, but rather a brainwashed pawn in a brutal army. Nagase, like Lomax, is desperate to purge himself of memories of this past, and has worked his whole life to try and make amends for the suffering he has caused. No simple good guys and bad guys here – both torturer and tortured are dehumanised, scarred and traumatised by the actions they have carried out. 

Teplitzky films that torture with an unflinching honesty, that leaves you in no doubt about why it has had such impact on Lomax. Jeremy Irvine is very good as the young Lomax, scared, vulnerable but brave and self-sacrificing who puts himself in the way of danger to try and protect his friends and then goes through savage beatings, interrogations and water boarding for information he doesn’t have. It’s difficult to watch, but never sensationalised and the traumatic pointlessness of these methods is abundantly clear. 

These memories, slowly revealed, are all too apparent in any case in Firth’s blasted face.  The film slowly reveals his psychological damage, with the opening sequence in fact suggesting a far lighter film ahead. The opening follows the meeting of Lomax and Patricia on a chance train journey. Playful and charming, these scenes work so well due to the wonderful chemistry between Firth and Kidman. It plays off in spadeas the plot gets darker and more disturbing. Kidman is very easy to overlook here in the “wife” role, but she invests it with an emotional honesty, a supportive woman eventually driven to the edge of her capabilities.

After the lightness of the opening, Terplitzky introduces the past literally like ghosts, with Lomax caught in a sudden delusion of himself being dragged through the hotel on his honeymoon, screaming in panic, to be carried to his torture danger. Throughout the film, the image of his torturer as a young man appears at various points (including at one point in a field as a train passes behind him), a constant reminder of how the past is here and now for Lomax.

It builds towards a sensational series of scenes as Lomax confronts Nagase, powered by two exceptional performances from Firth (barely able to control his anger, rage and pain) and a beaten down, distressed performance of shame from Hiroyuki Sanada, who matches him step for step. Sanada is superb as a man who confronts his nightmare – a man from his past – but also overwhelmed with the opportunity this gives him for amends. 

That’s what the film captures so well. This tension between past and present encapsulates the universal theme of our desire for revenge and our human need to connect coming together. Lomax and Nagase had every reason to kill each other, but their reaction to seeing each other is surprising, moving and a deep tribute to the human capacity to connect and move on. Grief and the past will destroy us all if we let it. The heroic examples of both Lomax and Nagase show us this doesn’t need to be the case.

The Wolverine (2013)

Hugh Jackman brings out the claws once more for The Wolverine

Director: James Mangold

Cast: Hugh Jackman (Logan/Wolverine), Hiroyuki Sanada (Shingen Yashida), Tak Okamoto (Mariko Yashida), Rila Fukushima (Yukio), Famke Janssen (Jean Grey), Will Yun Lee (Kenuichio Harada), Svetlana Khodchenkova (Dr Green/Viper), Haruhiko Yamanouchi (Ichiro Yashida), Brian Tee (Noburo Mori), Ken Yamamura (Young Ichiro Yashida)

Before James Mangold and Hugh Jackman teamed up for their triumphant 2017 Wolverine capper Logan, they first made The Wolverine. Adapting one of the most popular comic books to feature the clawed superhero, The Wolverine is set in Japan where Logan’s Ronin-like personality comes into contact with a culture he has more than a little sympathy for. 

Opening with the bombing of Nagasaki in 1945, Logan saves the life of young soldier Ichiro Yashida. Over 60 years later, the ageing Ichiro (Hauhiko Yamanouchi), now a tech billionaire, asks Logan to see him before he dies. He offers Logan the chance to give up his regenerative powers and live a “normal” life. Logan is unsure – but when Yashida dies, he suddenly finds his power gone and that he is embroiled in an inheritance war between Ichiro’s son Shingen (Hiroyuki Sanada) and granddaughter Mariko (Tak Okamoto), with uncertain aid/opposition from Yashida retainers Yukio (Rila Fukushima) and Harada (Will Yun Lee).

The Wolverine wants to be a dark character study, an attempt to drill down into the psyche of its hero. It doesn’t really succeed in doing this. Following on directly from the little-loved X-Men: The Last Stand, the present day section of the film opens with Logan still consumed with guilt over his euthanasia of Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), haunted by dreams of her. Living rough – and of course with the beard of tragedy looming large – the film aims to use the Japanese setting to bring Logan into a greater understanding of himself. In other words to accept the two halves of his personality: Logan and Wolverine. It’s no surprise to say this is what happens, but it fails to really get a sense of the clash between the two halves, or a sense of internal struggle of Logan wanting to reject the Wolverine personae.

Put simply, the film doesn’t manage to give us an idea of the internal war in Logan. He talks of wanting to leave violence behind him, but the sort of existential torment this requires would get in the way too much of the sort of claw-slashing action the fans are handing over their ticket money to see. On top of this, the sort of Samurai-inspired, still semi-feudal Japanese setting (with established families and loyal retainers) doesn’t really end up relating too much to the action. The sort of “masterless samurai” story the film is trying to tell requires a sense of deep honour and duty – themes which are there but don’t really come together into something really coherent. 

Basically, Japanese culture is, by and large, pretty irrelevant to the actual setting. Samurai culture is trivialised down to something that lacks any real thematic depth – the only thing that really matters is Logan learning a Japanese sword is a two-handed weapon – and the clash between Western greed and old-fashioned values of duty, honour and service is barely more than inferred. Effectively, for all the locations, the film could basically have been set anywhere at all, the entire cast replaced with Russians or Ghanaians or French and barely a word of the script would have needed to change.

Alongside this, the action, when we see it, has been watered down to the safest, PG-rated level you can imagine. There is barely any blood seen on the screen. Characters are hacked and slashed but all of it with smooth cleanliness. Action scenes switch between being shot far too closely, and with too much of an admiring air for choreography, or with a super-shiny gloss of special effects. There is a pretty good sequence on top of a bullet train, with Logan and his opponents tumbling and buffeted in the wind, but even this feels a little over produced. By the time the film hits its final battle, it’s hard not to be a little bit bored as Logan takes on a massive special effect, in a battle where the stakes are not altogether clear.

But then that’s the problem of this film, a sort of overly-complex Diet Coke of a film. The film has no fewer than three potential villains, none of whom end up being particularly interesting. It heads towards a final resolution that doesn’t feel like it helps us – or Logan – learn anything new about themselves. “I am the Wolverine” Logan growls at one point – but this claiming of his identity never really feels that earned. It’s a statement, a suggestion of depth, rather than depth itself.

This is hard on the film, and really there is nothing that wrong with it. It’s perfectly entertaining and passes the time. But it leaves the viewer with nothing after it finishes. It happens and then it is not happening and to be honest you won’t really notice the difference. It lands fairly in the middle of the franchise, a bland but not offensive effort that had the potential to be something greater but ends up firmly safe and middle-brow, avoiding diving too far down into its lead character’s psyche or showing us real action. Jackman is still good, much of the cast are fine, and Mangold is a solid director – but it never sets alight. Perhaps the sense of missed opportunity here is what ended up powering a much darker, grittier and engrossing film in Logan?

The Last Samurai (2003)

Ken Watanabe and Tom Cruise. I’ll leave you to guess which one turns out to be The Last Samurai…

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Tom Cruise (Nathan Algren), Ken Watanabe (Moritsugo Katsumoto), Timothy Spall (Simon Graham), Tony Goldwyn (Colonel Bagley), Billy Connolly (Zebulon Gant), Hiroyuki Sanada (Ujio), Shin Koyamada (Nobutada), Masato Harada (Omura), Shichinosuke Nakamura (Emperor Meiji), Koyuki (Taka), Seizo Fukumoto (Silent Samurai)

Nathan Algren (Tom Cruise) is a legendary but traumatised veteran of the US’s war against the Native Americans. In 1877 he is recruited by the Japanese government to train their new modern army. Japan is a country split between the old and the new, with the samurai leading a revolt against modernisation. After the army is defeated by the samurai, Algren is taken captive. He quickly finds himself enamoured with Samurai culture, not least because of the inspiring charisma and nobility of the samurai leader Lord Katsumoto (Ken Watanabe).

The white man in the noble warrior culture: it’s a narrative structure that never fails. The Last Samurai fits very neatly into a familiar pattern: a story about an exotic non-Western culture, with a white Western character placed at the forefront. Of course the samurai culture is portrayed with a romantic longing, with the charms of its honourable life impossible to resist for our hero, all too familiar with the corruption of our culture. It’s been a pretty standard structure ever since Dances with Wolves. And of course, the white man is left standing as the only witness to the brave sacrifices of the noble-savages-who–weren’t-as-savage-as-we-first-thought.

What this structure does is minimise the entire point of the story. This is supposedly a story about a major shift in Japanese culture – from the old feudal world of the samurai to a more mechanised, modern society. In this cultural shift, some people got left behind, unable to let go of the old ways. It’s a tragedy for that old way of life, but this film muddies that water with its redemption structure for Algren. So by the end of the film, we may be looking at the destruction of the samurai culture and the deaths of most of the characters we’ve spent the film (sort of) getting to know – but hey at least the American lead has found peace and contentment.

So the nominal “last samurai” himself, Katsumoto, becomes a supporting character in his own film, a spirit animal to guide Algren towards a better understanding of himself and of the world. Katsumoto is presented romantically, a noble, kindly, principled man who mixes a love of poetry and flowers and a wry wit with a fanatical ruthlessness in battle. It’s the quintessential “noble savage” of Hollywood lore. All of which is not a criticism of Ken Watanabe, who is excellent – a guy whom you find yourself falling in love with, totally believable as the sort of man others would follow to the death. It’s a standard Hollywood cliché, albeit one presented with commitment.

Having said all that, the film does treat Japanese culture with an immense respect, even if it does so through a romantic lens. It’s also pretty unflinching at the more brutal side of the samurai culture – its expectations of suicide on failure, its pride and unwillingness to compromise. Of course, these are also later embraced as part of its nobility, but at least they are there. The film does also touch on some points of disagreement between East and West – Algren has nothing but contempt for Custer’s ego-driven suicidal last stand, while Katsumoto finds the story enchantingly inspired – but doesn’t allow these to get in the way of the romance. And by the end of the film, there is certainly no criticism for the suicidal charge Algren and Katsumoto lead the samurai into.

The modernising Japanese forces are given far less understanding. Of course, historically, if Japan wished to engage with the modern world and trade, it needed to undergo a certain level of progression from its feudal background. Historically this shift may have been too drastic – a rejection of the past rather than a development – but needless to say, here the modernising Japanese characters are uniformly presented as cowardly, selfish and greedy. Not to be outdone, it also introduces a racist American colonel, with a career of brutal campaigns against Native Americans, to serve as Algren’s nemesis (and to provide a small, audience-pleasing victory when he is killed off in the final battle).

I’m being very hard on The Last Samurai, which, within the confines of the Hollywood predictability it inhabits, is in fact a fairly decent film. Cruise is rather good as Algren, even if his drunken self-loathing is sometimes over played. He’s perhaps not completely convincing as a bitter ex-soldier, but he nails the depression and lost-soul nature of Algren. The Japanese actors are all excellent – there is barely a weak link in the cast, with Koyuki particularly soulful as the widow of a man killed by Algren.

The film is brilliantly shot by John Toll and looks wonderful, and even if it is slightly predictable and directed with a mundane lack of imagination (Edward Zwick is a competent but uninspired director and he creates an epic here in that image) it’s still fine and entertaining viewing. Cruise and especially Watanabe create heroes you care for. The final battle sequence does move, with its final triumph of mechanisation over blind courage. Zwick does have an eye for capturing the warmth and simplicity of the samurai village life, and he and screenwriter John Logan deserve a lot of credit for their research, respect and understanding of Japanese culture (the film was well received in Japan). The Last Samuraiis a clichéd and slightly flawed epic, but it has a nobility and honesty to it. With some excellent performances, it is more than entertaining enough.