Given the pedigree of “Aegis”, it’s no surprise the film is little more than a (barely) covert stab at nationalistic propaganda designed to get the domestic crowd riled up and embrace their “Japaneseness”. Except there isn’t really anyone for the film to rally against, unless you consider the chief villain, who was a North Korean in the original book by Harutoshi Fukui (“Lorelei”), but is a veiled maybe-Chinese person in the movie. In a nutshell, “Aegis” is a Japanese take on the “Die Hard” concept, or to be more specific, a remake of “Under Siege”. Towards the end, the film turns into a remake of Michael Bay ‘s “The Rock”, right down to a last minute save to avert an aerial attack.
“Aegis” is set mainly onboard the Isokaze, a Cruiser-class Japanese naval ship on a routine training mission, when it finds itself taken over by terrorists from outside and traitorous crewmen from within. The bad guys’ agenda is to use a stolen super secret American weapon to gas Tokyo and murder tens of millions. That leaves the Isokaze’s Chief Petty Officer, the sensible Sengoku (Hiroyuki Sanada) to save the day. The middle-age sailor gets able assist from brash tyke Kisaragi (Ryo Katsuji), who as it turns out is actually a spy sent by Japanese spook chief Atsumi (Koichi Sato) to monitor, and if necessary, act to stop the terrorists. Not surprisingly, things don’t quite go as planned, leaving us with another “Die Hard on a Ship” situation.
Resemblances to American action films aside, even those used to the measured pacing of Japanese storytelling will find “Aegis” plodding at best and tedious at worst. Director Junji Sakamoto tries to keep things interesting by highlighting the characters, although it probably wasn’t such a good idea to have such a large cast. As well, we’re dealing with cardboard cutouts here, including duty-bound heroes Sengoku and Kisaragi, and the robot-like not-North Korean North Korean terrorists. The traitorous Japanese don’t even have any real incentive to be bad guys, and spends most of the movie giving the impression they hadn’t thought this whole Benedict Arnold thing through.
Action-wise, “Aegis” offers a few scattered shoot outs to keep the viewers busy until the final, bloody gunbattle. The action scenes are not overly realistic, which will make them even less palatable to mainstream audiences looking for an adrenaline rush. In a way, “Aegis” can afford not to have great action, because at its core the film is a thinly veiled call for Japan to shake off the slumber of its 60 year peace and become engaged in the world once more. To this end, almost every Japanese character gets to make a rah-rah speech about what it means to “be Japanese” at one point or another. After a while, you can practically sense when a character is about to climb onto the soapbox. And my God do they make speeches. Lots and lots of speeches.
For those wondering, the Aegis of the title is little more than a throwaway, peripheral McGuffin. According to the film, because the Isokaze is armed with the Aegis, a supposedly high-tech, super duper defense system, it is effectively invulnerable to all manner of exterior threat. (Never you mind that this notion is never demonstrated to any degree of satisfaction, we’re just supposed to accept it.) Which if true, would make the Isokaze and all the ships equipped with Aegis the most powerful naval vessels in the world, not to mention the universe! Of course this doesn’t necessarily explain why the Japanese doesn’t just send in wave after wave of jets armed with napalm, or wave after wave of Destroyers to take out the Isokaze before it reaches its destination and fires its payload. Then again, I’m not a highly paid Japanese screenwriter, so what do I know.
Those familiar with action movie cliché will get a kick out of counting the number of times “Aegis” dips into the “Under Siege” pool. Not surprisingly, the bureaucrats back at home who must assemble in a room to negotiate with the terrorists are idiots, led by a Prime Minister who’d rather be anywhere but there. And of course there’s a mysterious government spook that is responsible for setting the whole thing in motion to begin with, although curiously his complicity only gets him fired. Go figure. I’d think jail term, or maybe a firing squad, might be more appropriate.
Non-Japanese viewers won’t find a whole lot about “Aegis” to get excited over. At over two hours, the film is much too long, and spends too much time making slogans that will seem repetitive very quickly. The villains are non-entities, existing simply to run around the ship and get gunned down by Sengoku and Kisaragi. “Aegis” also loses points by cowardly refusing to name the nationality of the villains, although this might be for the benefit of the film’s potential Korean box office, given that South Koreans are quite insistent that no one talk bad about their Northern brothers, even in the movies. (James Bond, anyone?)
“Aegis’” one notable addition to the genre is the way it provides backstory for its characters, which it does by using flashbacks to important moments in each person’s life. While this doesn’t add very much to the overall story, it is an interesting technique, and does help to flesh out the characters somewhat. Alas, we can’t get flashbacks for everyone, and the not-North Korean North Koreans end up as emotionless automatons devoid of personality. The good guys fare better, but it’s too bad the story is so familiar, derivative, and lacking. If you’re not going to be original, then at least offer up a big, loud, and dumb action movie in its stead. “Aegis” simply refuses to give the non-Japanese audience anything to sink its teeth into.
Junji Sakamoto (director) / Harutoshi Fukui (novel), Yasuo Hasegawa (screenplay)
CAST: Hiroyuki Sanada …. Hisashi Sengoku
Akira Terao …. Hirotaka Miyatzu
Koichi Sato …. Diasuke Atsumi
Kiichi Nakai …. Yeung Fan
Ryo Katsuji …. Kou Kisaragi
Min-seo Chae …. Jon-hee