This is a review (with spoilers) of Steven Seagal’s latest crapfest, Into the Sun, but first some background:
Steven Seagal was 17 when he first made his way to Japan. By the time he left at age 32, he was the head of a major Aikido dojo in Osaka and spoke fluent Japanese. He then returned to his native California to become personal trainer to the stars.
Eventually he met Hollywood mogul Michael Ovitz and the rest was history: crappy action movie after crappy action movie. Yet something always puzzled me about Seagal’s career: he rarely if ever brings up Japan and hasn’t really attempted to become a gaijin tarento despite his fluence in Japanese and obvious desire for stardom.
There are a few possible explanations for such reluctance. In interviews, Seagal comes off as extremely humble (even though he could beat your ass just by thinking about it), a trait he likely learned in Japan. When asked why he left Japan, Seagal betrays his tough exterior and claims to be shy of the spotlight:
When I was in Japan, people tried to deify me, and the reason I left there was that deification is truly a death trap. That is a reason why I kept my spiritual practice to myself in America. I don’t think deification has been one of my biggest problems in life because I am lucky enough to have understood a long time ago what adoration and power really are about. I think the great obstacle was just a lack of understanding of the way.
My translation: “There’s no money to be made in Japanese showbusiness.” (See this good article for more on the Japanese entertainment industry)
Anyway, Seagal’s first wife was Japanese, and depending on how bad their divorce was I would understand if he didn’t feel like immersing himself in Japanese stuff for a while.
The actor seems to be coming out of his shell, finally, with his new movie Into the Sun. Let me start out by saying some nice things about the film. It was well-shot, there are lots of good-looking actresses dressed impeccably, and Japan is filmed very realistically and without the usual stereotypes. Seagal wrote the screenplay and obviously wanted to make sure his beloved Japan got treated well. The plot is ripped from the headlines as well, dealing with such up to the minute subjects as Japan’s ultra-conservative, anti-foreigner governor Ishihara Shintaro and the Chinese mafia’s expansion into Japanese territory.
The plot: Seagal stars as a retired US government agent (CIA? Special Forces? We are never told) who grew up in Japan and has decided to live out his golden years as a part time sword salesman and a full time badass. However the yakuza/triad-related murder of the anti-foreigner governor of Tokyo forces the CIA to bring him out of retirement in hopes that they can crack the case. Why is the CIA investigating the murder of a Japanese politician? “They could be terrorists.” Welcome to post-9/11 America, where non-sequiturs like that are the major themes of presidential addresses.
However, what the CIA (and the producers for that matter) didn’t bet on when they put Seagal on the case is that he is a complete fuck-up. One would expect an investigator who can speak Japanese to use his skills to develop relationships with agents in order to get better information. Or, barring that, to find a way to arrest and skilfully interrogate his suspects. On the contrary, Seagal makes the worst possible use of his Japanese skills. Whenever he encounters a badguy, he wastes no time in berating them in garbled Osaka dialect Japanese and slicing them up with a sword from his collection, wasting any opportunity to actually learn anything from them (In fact, almost all the fighting in this movie is done with swords — I never even SAW a sword in Japan except at museums and tourist shops). On top of that, he decides that the best way to get to the bottom of the Sino-Japanese heroin cartel responsible for the governor’s murder is to involve all his closest friends. The cute hostess girl, the Chinese shopkeeper, and the tattoo artist all die, predictably, and Seagal feels the need to kill ALL the yakuza in revenge when really he should be turning the sword on himself for getting them into this mess in the first place.
Oh, and now that I’m on the topic of people needlessly killed due to Seagal’s recklessness, I might as well bring up the completely superfluous partner. Sean is a freshly dispatched Homeland Security officer (again because of some tenuous connection to terrorism), and the man is such a typical white boy I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s a regular in Japanese commercials. The movie decided to give him no personality except that he knows nothing about Japan. I’d go into detail, but the less said about him the better (one thing: he gags more than a few times at the sight of Japanese food, even unable to down a simple hamburger).
Those aren’t the last of the film’s problems. See the cover there? Looks good right? Thing is, it’s basically from ANOTHER MOVIE. The grenade launcher on his back doesn’t even appear in the movie.
The acting sucks even for a Seagal film. The director, “mink” who seems to be a friend of Seagal’s but is virtually unknown in the film industry, is a Brit who obviously doesn’t know how to direct Japanese-language dialogue. It comes out stilted at best (the yakuza), incoherent at worst (Seagal).
Also, for some reason “mink” (with a lowercase m for “moron”) thought it fitting to force Japanese actors with a tenuous grip on the English language to speak English to each other in almost every scene. Admittedly, as someone who has studied Japanese I’m not sure of the dramatic value this would have to someone who can’t understand what’s being said. I can only imagine that they did not intend on releasing the movie in Japan and therefore did not see any value in putting in excessive Japanese dialogue. But endless scenes of people reciting lines to each other in a language no one comprehends is boring to say the least and reminds me of an ESL classroom of the damned. Add in the complete lack of meaningful character development and you’ve got a recipe for boredom.
Still, this movie answered a question that had been bothering me for years: how good is Steven Seagal’s Japanese? It’s good, but he’s trying way too hard. What purpose does it serve for him to speak in a thick Osaka accent? Has he been away from Japan so long that that’s all he can muster? And there are other parts of the movie where he ends up sounding really weird (this is confirmed by Mrs. Adamu lest you not trust my skills). There is a part in the movie where he and his (TOTALLY RANDOM AND UNEXPLAINED LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE IN THE MOVIE INCLUDING WHY HIS CHARACTER WAS RAISED IN JAPAN) love interest make a “pinky swear” promise (common among Japanese girls). Here’s the dialogue (In Japanese so deal):
Girl: Yubi kiri genman, uso tsuitara hari senbon no-masu, yubi kitta!
Seagal (in a girly voice): Yubi kitta zo-?
WTF?! I thought talking like a girl was for rookies?
Of course, I’m nitpicking and I am certain he could kick my ass in Japanese just as well as he could in a fistfight. But he still looked like a fem.
A number of themes scream out at you as you watch the film: first and foremost is that Steven Seagal speaks Japanese and knows martial arts.
The second is that the new generation of yakuza doesn’t have the honor or restraint of the previous generation. The new yakuza wear funky clothes as opposed to the traditional mafioso suits, link up with the Chinese, and kill at random, all practices seemingly unthinkable to the old yakuza. Seagal in the movie is really chummy with the old yakuza, enlisting their aid to crack the case and drinking with them at regular intervals. And the movie ends in a kind of triumph for old-guard yakuza, with the old gangster who helped Seagal becoming the oyabun (mob boss).
This movie is Seagal’s way of telling the world that he aligns himself with the OLD Japanese society, not this crazy new generation. If the movie is any guide, Seagal-sensei sees younger Japanese as amoral, reckless, and even traitorous in their liberal attitude and wacky clothes. Older Japanese, on the other hand are stiff, formal, and respectful of foreigners. Sure, they might be doing some bad things, but at least there’s an ORDER to things, and people follow the rules so that innocent people don’t get hurt.
Personally, if I had to pick a side, I’d align myself with the nebulous “younger generation.” I, too, came to Japan at age 17, except it was in 1999, not 1968. This is as subjective a view as Seagal’s, but I don’t see Japan’s younger generation ripping society apart at the seams a la Battle Royale. To give an equally vague response to Seagal’s sentiments, I would say that the new generation of Japanese is simply trying to adapt to keep from being left behind in a changing world.