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Young Men Risk All to Go West

MOVIE REVIEW
Chosyu Five (2006)

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「長州ファイブ」製作委員会

Japan – a country which fiercely guarded its international isolation until 1852 – has, 160 years later, become a member of the G8, at the top table of nations worldwide. Its genius with software technology, cars and entertainment is feted globally, with products from Walkmans to Game Boys now ubiquitous in Western culture. This success is all the more amazing when we consider modernity was only introduced to Japan sporadically after 1852, with more rapid technological expansion only arriving after 1945. To be alive at this time in Japan was to live through a whirlwind of change, and not just in how Japan managed the outside world. The feudal system was still in place in the 1860s, with clans of samurai controlling different regions similar to Italy’s city-states, and local conflicts breaking out all the time.

But some clan leaders were more prescient than others, including the leader of the Chosyu clan. He realized that the best way to gain tactical advantage both over the other clans and in dealing with foreigners was to send his brightest young sparks to study overseas. By learning skills such as shipbuilding, engineering and printing, on their return they would be automatic leaders of men. Sho Igarashi’s "Chosyu Five" is based on the real young men who made this journey in 1862 – a time when it was still forbidden for Japanese to leave their country – on pain of death.

"Chosyu Five" could have been an interesting exploration of the culture clash within Japan after Commodore Perry’s arrival in Tokyo harbor, as the feudal system realized it was not best placed to negotiate on an international scale. It could also have an exploration of how it felt to be the first people from your country to journey to London, into a culture and city that must have made its visitors feel they were lost on the moon. Sadly, the film does not quite succeed on either count. The five young men are brought together in the same style as the round-up of the drillers in "Armageddon," with the same minimal sketch of characterization. Mr. Igarashi makes it slightly more difficult by referring to each of the five by multiple nicknames, making it tricky to keep everyone straight. The two leaders are Yozo Yamao (Ryuhei Matsuda) and Matsuda Inoue (Tetsuo Yamashita), straight arrows who desperately want to impress on their return home as a shipbuilder and railway engineer respectively.

However, it’s hard to be sympathetic to their stated goal of becoming "living machines" when they repeat the phrase ad nauseum. Their hugely sincere and fought-for intentions actually become a joke. Worse, we don’t learn anything new along with the characters, such as how to print money or design a steamship. The focus instead is on their grappling amongst themselves over the details of the political strategy which keeps them there. The overwhelming culture clash that must have permeated their experience is only shown through a conversation Endo (Michiyoshi Maeda, the comic relief) has with a whore that's reminiscent of nothing so much as the anarcho-syndicalist commune scene in "Monty Python and the Holy Grail." Later, Yamao is on a date with a deaf Scottish girl (Michelle Duncan, gamely playing a character so implausible she can only be based on reality) who asks him, “What’s your country like?” to get the check-please answer, “Well, we have no industry.” Maybe an enormous amount of nuance was lost in the translation, but I am not so sure. Mr. Igarashi’s story is hugely undercut by this failure to let its characters develop as individuals.

Where "Chosyu Five" does impress is as a period film clearly shot on a small budget. The stillness of the camera and the framing of shots bring to mind Yasujiro Ozu, although the murkiness of the lighting could have been improved to enable greater closeness with the characters. Excellent use of indoor sets both in Japan and England, as well as a sequence set on a clipper ship, really bring the period setting alive in an accessible way, and there’s little obvious use of C.G.I. However, once in England this is let down by peculiar choices of locations, such as the shot of the Thames and the Houses of Parliament which includes Portcullis House, opened in 2001. But this does not jar nearly as much as using the highly distinctive cliffs of Dover to stand in for the Shetland Islands, which is a bit like filming Mount Rushmore and calling it Boston harbor.

You would really want this film to be as interesting as its subject. As a homegrown companion to the Hollywood blockbuster "The Last Samurai" – a film which surprised mostly for the towering achievement of Ken Watanabe’s performance – "Chosyu Five" offers a true insider’s view of a similar time in history. For all the triteness of the language used in its depiction, the struggles of the Chosyu Five seem more real, and their quiet triumph in the long run make their hard work worth it. Regrettably, sitting through the film of their story is not nearly as satisfying.

This film is showing as part of the Reality Fiction: Japanese Films Inspired by Actual Events season currently at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, The Mall, London SW1Y 5AH, and shortly to tour Britain.

Comments

Oh wow. Good choice and glad to be introduced.
I once went to the opening of a movie titled "恋愛写真" (Lover's photography), and saw real 松田龍平 (Ryu-hei Matsuda) and he was so cool. Speechless and was shy.
I love his acting style.

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