Returner is a blend of Terry Gilliam’s 12 Monkeys, Steven Spielberg’s E.T, and The Wachowski’s The Matrix. If you take into consideration the fact that time travel is something of a tired subgenre of science fiction, then you’re probably thinking Returner sounds like a bad movie. However, the magic of this film is in the execution, and by God if Returner isn’t one of the coolest Japanese movies I’ve ever seen.
Japanese films have a tendency to disappoint me in two regards: acting and cinematography. I’ve nothing but love for the Japanese films of old, but modern day Japanese cinema has a tendency to not only look a bit digital and cheap, but also contain little to no cinematography. In essence, many of today’s Japanese films feel like TV shows with bigger budgets. Furthermore, many Japanese actors I’ve seen are a bit flat or too by-the-numbers. Surprisingly, in these regards, Takashi Yamazaki’s Returner is an absolutely pleasant surprise.
The film’s leading roles, Miyamoto and Milly, are filled in by Takeshi Kaneshiro and Anne Suzuki respectively, and provide an interesting dynamic that supplants many of the film’s elements, as borrowed and tired as they may be. I’d say this film is something like Whedon’s The Avengers or Abrams’ Star Trek, where the meat of the script is not in the plotting, but in characterization and in very interesting situations. The acting provided by these two is exceptional and went above and beyond my usual expectations when it comes to newer Japanese films. Kaneshiro really does come off as a killer hitman with a troubled past, and Suzuki does well as the vulnerable and unsure time traveling hero from the future.
The film follows a premise I’m sure you’re familiar with. A young girl named Milly is sent to the past from a war torn future, on a mission to, well, save her future. She plays something of a Kyle Reese role in the film, as she seeks to kill an alien called ‘The Daggra’ that is apparently the cause of the Earth’s future war. Miyamoto, professional hitman, is the first human to have a close encounter with Milly and is unwillingly pulled into her plot. The twist, and it really isn’t one, is that the alien Milly’s hunting isn’t evil as she originally thought. And there’s much more . . . Trust me. This film may borrow many old ideas, but I certainly didn’t see most of the twists coming.
The action scenes aren’t anything special and do borrow from The Matrix. In fact many scenes in this film are a direct reference or ‘homage’ to the Wachowski Brothers’ trilogy. There are also elements that are obviously pulled from Back to the Future and E.T as I mentioned before. Returner’s director, Takashi Yamazaki, didn’t craft a story that is entirely original, but by the end manages to somehow separate itself from everything that came before it. He also must have attended Steven Spielberg’s proverbial school of film making, because by the end of the film my heartstrings were being tugged. I think I shed a man tear.
So yes, many of the film’s elements are old and borrowed, but the director manages to supplement them with a few twists that make them his own. The ‘bullet time’ seen in the film is possible via a small device Milly wears on her wrist. I guess you can say it’s because of the device that ‘bullet time’ actually becomes something that supplements the film’s action and is not gratuitous or just another gimmick to woo audiences.
The film does have some level of cheapness to it, though. Special effects are of little concern to me, but I do appreciate good characterization, and this film has plenty of it. However, when it comes to Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani), the film’s leading villain, I feel that something more could have been done. You see, Kishitani’s performance boils down to the equivalent of Kevin Bacon’s own performance in X-Men First Class; it was a pimp-suit performance, evil for the sake of being evil. The only way I could rationalize Mizoguchi’s behavior in the film was assume he was either a sociopath or a psychopath. In the film, Mizoguchi’s goal is to squeeze information out of ‘The Daggra’ that would enable him to use the alien’s advanced technology, thus granting him a great deal of power. Mizoguchi also happens to be the target of Miyamoto’s vengeance in the film.
Returner is a hard film to put into words, but it’s highly entertaining. The action is great, there’s an appropriate amount of humor sprinkled about, and it also manages to be a little emotional at times. The film’s leading duo have wonderful chemistry, and an old lady with a penchant for explosives provides some amusing comic relief. This film’s even got Transformers, ladies and gentleman. No kidding. Rarely am I ever so enthusiastic about a film, and Returner is one of the coolest pieces of Japanese cinema I’ve seen in a long time.
Interested? Buy the DVD: http://www.amazon.com/Returner-Takeshi-Kaneshiro/dp/B00011V8JA/