Returner (Deluxe Limited Edition) Review
Quite some time ago now I was pointed in the direction of a forthcoming Japanese sci-fi action title by the name of Returner. My interest was immediately perked after viewing the four trailers available on the official website as they showed an intriguing mix of slick camera tricks combined with balletic gunplay and at the forefront of all this was one of the better young Japanese actors of his generation, Takeshi Kaneshiro. Probably best know to western audiences through his work on Hong Kong movies such as Chungking Express and Fallen Angels (from director Wong Kar-wai) Kaneshiro has certainly proven his acting talent so for Returner he has travelled back to his homeland to exercise the right every young Asian male lead has, to star in his very own action movie.
It would seem that Kaneshiro has not only the talent but also a set of enviously good looks to carry off the action hero role, for when he dons the flowing leather jacket associated with his character Miyamoto you will be hard pushed to select a more appropriate young actor for the part. The character in question is swiftly and clearly defined with great style in the films opening action sequence as we see Miyamoto take on a sophisticated Triad gang who are ruthless in their methods, yet helpless against his skills. In an expert fashion Miyamoto takes out each of these foes, one by one with pinpoint accuracy (be it via handgun or a swift kick to the head) while the camera weaves its magic in and out of the action utilising a variety of slow motion tricks that hark back to the John Woo classics we all know and love, and in these early stages the action certainly conveys the same sense of style as Woo's work and as a result manages to draw you in at this early juncture in the films running time.
When Miyamoto comes face to face with the triad gangs leader, Mizoguchi, a major foe is brought to the forefront as this character is not only a worthy opponent, but is also ruthless to the extreme and a face from Miyamoto's past that haunts him to this day. Distracting Miyamoto from his mission and allowing Mizoguchi the opportunity to escape is a young girl we shall soon come to know as Milly, a character who literally falls out of the sky into the midst of the action and is accidentally shot by Miyamoto as a result. Later we discover that Milly has come from the future of some 80 years and is in need of Miyamoto's help to save mankind from an apocalyptic war that will begin in just three days time.
Soon after these events take place Miyamoto reluctantly joins forces with Milly (or 'dumb kid' as he prefers to call her) but does so with little belief in her cause. Coincidentally their path of action begins to cross Mizoguchi's with alarming frequency, as he too discovers the source of this war and is drawn in by its sheer destructive abilities and decides to claim it for himself. Now our heroes share a common enemy the story is set and the race is on to save mankind.
Let us get this out of the way before I go any further. Story is not a strong point with this film. For a start it borrows plot elements from countless other movies with the likes of The Terminator and its sequel being the most obvious inspiration, to the point where one shot in particular is completely lifted from Terminator 2 and utilised here. Highly derivative yes, and even the aspects that may appear fairly original to some western audiences (such as the alien spacecraft designs) have been seen in numerous anime series before. What this results in is a story that is so bereft of originality that it frequently appears stale and worse still, is so unbelievably predictable that not one single element of the plot comes as a surprise. That is not to say Returner is a bad film though, far from it in fact as in the very least you can say the story serves its purpose and gets the characters into explosive situations. And in many ways I get the impression that the director knew exactly what he was making and decided to leave the plot as it was and instead concentrates on creating a film that appeals via its set-pieces, aesthetic charms and more importantly through a trio of main characters that you instantly take a liking to.
As Miyamoto (the first of the trio), Kaneshiro is basically cruising and comes off all the better for it as his character is a happy go lucky gun for hire, confident with his abilities and set on his goals, while his striking looks, cool demeanour and simple but suave wardrobe makes him look so damn good you simply cannot fault him in this role, nor for taking it for that matter. Milly on the other hand is a young girl from a war torn future who is fighting with herself and others to achieve what she has been sent back in time to do, prevent the horrors she knows will come to pass and save mankind as we know it. Quite a task for a girl of roughly 15 (the age Anne Suzuki was when she took the role) and while these elements are brought up within the film they are not fleshed out as much as they could have been, which is a shame but not the fault of Suzuki, who for me did a fine job with this character. The interplay between her and Kaneshiro is where the real heart of the story lies, as despite a script that lacks any real depth there is certainly a connection here that is brought about via the actors onscreen chemistry. Prime examples include the moments of pure innocence that Milly exudes that really endear you to her character while Kaneshiro's equally innocent reactions to these moments have a cheeky side to them that helps lighten his overall tone. These include the opportunity to do simple acts just not possible in her time such as eat a home cooked meal or dress in anything but army gear. Common everyday aspects of life such as these are integrated well into the plot and create some of the best non-action moments while the opportunity to develop a relationship with another human being is something that is seen throughout via playful moments (often highlighted by the fitting score) between Milly and Miyamoto that always managed to bring a smile to this jaded reviewers face (because you could of course argue that moments such as these detract from the weight of her mission).
Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani) rounds off the trio of main characters and provides a great villain for our heroes to deal with. He struts around sporting a funky hair style and tailored suits that combined with his sheer ruthlessness and disregard for human life make him ideal for a Takeshi Miike movie (low and behold, after some research it appears he was in Miike's Graveyard of Honour the same year!), but more importantly these character traits make him a joy to watch in a comical way, and even more of a joy when you think of him receiving his eventual come-uppance.
Visually the film is quite an accomplishment. Already mentioned are the various camera tricks employed to emphasise the skilled gunplay we see within the film, while these tricks are also utilised elsewhere including an action set-piece involving a motorcycle (and looking suspiciously like M:I-2). Later in the film you will be treated to some superbly shot 'bullet-time' sequences that for a change are given a legitimate reason for their inclusion, while you can also expect some reasonable CGI work to be involved as we see flashes depicting the future Milly comes from and the alien invasion that will occur. Unfortunately this is also where the film trips up and lands flat on its face as one particular 5-minute sequence is in a word (or two), cringe worthy. Not because of the CGI effects mind, as these are fairly interesting and well handled for a relatively low budget picture, but instead you will feel like muting the audio as the dialogue (which is entirely in English) is just hideously written, devoid of any natural sentiment and worse still are the performances with pronunciation that is occasionally so bad that English subtitles are required! Yes, you could argue that English is not their first language but when the western actors involved cannot even get it right you begin to feel as though you are in B-Movie territory. So on your first sitting when you are just getting into the flow of the movie this segment just tears you right back out which is a great shame as this sequence is placed fairly early in the films running time and does it no favours in terms of holding your attention (though fortunately on subsequent viewings you are prepared for it, but even then it's still hard to watch).
Despite all this the single most disappointing aspect of Returner is something I am having great difficulty pinning down, as the film is just missing that spark any sci-fi action film ought to have which results in a film that while fun and certainly peppered with plenty of slick touches just manages to drag its heels at times, leading to you checking the remaining runtime on more than one occasion throughout.
Released in Japan on March 7th 2003, Returner is available in both Standard and Deluxe Limited Editions, the latter of which is on review here. The Standard edition is a single disc release that comes housed in an Armaray case, its contents are identical to that of Disc One of the Deluxe Limited Edition release. What the latter offers (for a limited time only) is a 2nd disc filled with extensive bonus material, and a far more attractive package overall that I shall explain below.
The Deluxe Limited Edition comes housed in a thick cardboard slipcase, inside of which you will find two separate foldout digipacks. The first of these digipacks contains the films two discs, the second digipack holds 8 Armaray case sized glossy cards that have artwork from the film on them, while you will also be treated to a 55-page book that features original storyboards for the film. The package is of a very high quality and features superb artwork throughout, while the bonus material is also highly accessible to non-Japanese speakers as it is mostly artwork.
For a closer look I have compiled an Image Gallery showcasing the set in all its glory (my photography skills may diminish the effect slightly).
Retail on the Standard edition is 4800yen (approx £25) while the Deluxe Limited Edition goes for 5800yen (approx £30). If you should decide to purchase this film then I highly recommend you pay the extra and go for the Deluxe Limited Edition set. You can purchase the deluxe set through our affiliate links to the side, or purchase the standard edition through the links below.
I don't usually bother discussing the Menu system with movie DVDs but as this is a Japanese release there will no doubt be some concern in terms of navigation difficulties. Fortunately you can rest easy as the Menu system features an elegant design that is quick and easy to navigate, and as a bonus all headings on the disc are in English. Even the Audio and Subtitle setup screens are in English so you should have no problems making the correct selections (and besides, you can change the audio/subtitles options via your remote during the film).
Presented in its original 1.85:1 Widescreen aspect ratio and featuring anamorphic enhancement this is a fine looking transfer that is only let down by a few minor issues. The print used is in perfect condition, though you will notice a fair amount of film grain throughout that I can only presume is part of the look and was by choice (either in post production or through the selection of film stock) as it is quite unusual for such a recent title and even appears to extend to the CGI moments. Everything still looks superb though with good detail levels throughout and a slightly muted colour scheme that is again most likely deliberate and certainly fits with the films look. Compression on the disc is of a high quality with no signs of artefacting that I noticed, though there is some very minor edge enhancement present and a few signs of aliasing. The layer change is well placed and barely noticeable as a result while on the whole I would say the film has a very natural look to it on this DVD offering.
Something I particularly like about Japanese DVD releases in general, and this is no exception, are the inclusion of what are often referred to as 'Over scan Bars' that maintain the original aspect ratio whilst also compensating for the over scan often present on CRT Televisions. This results in TV owners seeing the entire picture without any need to calibrate your set (which is no simple task), though I do know that Projection System owners are quite often none too keen on the idea.
The original soundtrack includes Japanese, English and Mandarin dialogue and is represented here in DTS, DD5.1 and DD2.0 Surround audio tracks. For my main viewing session I opted for the DTS track that offers a fairly aggressive 5.1 mix with good separation, booming bass and of course crystal clear dialogue though it was never quite the audio feast I was hoping for given the nature of the film. Using the opening action sequence with Kaneshiro I switched back and forth between the DTS and DD5.1 tracks, which revealed some minor differences. Favour went the DTS options way as it usually does due to a greater clarity on both the sound and separation effects, but for those without the DTS option the DD5.1 track is still a fine choice.
Optional English subtitles are provided in an easy to read white font and would appear to offer a good translation of the dialogue, while I only noticed one grammatical error throughout the 2-hour runtime. The only problem some people might have with the English subs is how they are present during the English dialogue featured within the film, though given the often awkward accents the actors have I actually found the subtitles on these occasions to be quite useful.
Two sets of Japanese subtitles are provided, one set for normal use (only subtitles the English and Mandarin dialogue) and the other set for the deaf and hard of hearing (subtitles all dialogue).
This is a 2-disc release with the large majority of bonus material located on the second disc. All bonus material is presented in non-anamorphic format (be it Full screen or Widescreen material) with the audio track (Japanese) in DD2.0, while there are NO subtitles of any language present. For that reason I was going to simply give you a brief overview of what appears to be on this set, but as it turns out a surprising amount of the extra material is very accessible to the non-Japanese speaking audience so I ended up getting far more use out of the second disc than I imagined.
Disc One: On offer here is an Audio Commentary track that features three participants who discuss the movie (I'll take a guess and say its the Director, Producer and Screenwriter), a Cast & Crew Biographies section that features info on 10 actors and 16 crew members, while you will also find 2 Theatrical Trailers on the disc (these are worth a look as they show why I was lured into purchasing this film).
Disc Two: Presented on this disc is an extensive Production Diary that chronicles the making of and eventual release of Returner between the dates of September 9th 2001 and August 31st 2002. Earning the title of Days of Returner this diary is broken down into 5 segments, all of which can be accessed individually via a slick menu system that includes seamless transitions into the video documentaries you can access. This diary totals some 160-minutes and includes one 55-minute section that offers an alternative audio commentary track taking the total to 215-minutes.
What follows is a look at each of the 5 sections the Production Diary is broken into.
Pre-production (25-mins) - The first video segment has the Director, Producer and Screenwriter discussing the 'buddy-movie' concept, while the closing minutes of this segment include a visually impressive Demo Reel that was used to sell the movie. The next two video segments have members of the crew discussing the action and production design elements of the film. Both feature numerous behind-the-scenes footage, the first showing the stunt-team developing the action sequences and instructing the actors, while the second includes plenty of original artwork depicting the various design work that went into the film.
In Production (65-mins) - This is where you will find the previously mentioned 55-minute video section that includes an audio commentary option that I believe features the director with actor Anne Suzuki. The two offer commentary over what is literally 55-minutes of pure behind-the-scenes footage, taken from 12 different scenes that were shot in various locations, which makes this one of the most extensive and accessible parts of the disc for non-Japanese speaking fans as you can just sit back and watch the cast and crew at work on what are mostly action sequences. If you would rather not sit through this then at least be sure to skip to the end where you will see a great photo of the cast and crew together with a huge alien mock up.
Furthering the accessibility of this section are three short (roughly 3-minutes each) segments entitled Days of Miyamoto, Days of Milly and Days of Mizoguchi, that are simple collections of behind-the-scenes moments with the respective actors showing their best moments, edited together and accompanied by the films soundtrack. So in short, they're music videos of each actor behind-the-scenes.
Post Production (25-mins) - This is another section that is very accessible to non-Japanese speaking individuals as it features very little dialogue. What you will find here are two 9-minute Visual Effects featurettes, each offering text descriptions of what you are seeing but you don't need to understand the text as it is fairly obvious that you are seeing the visual effects shots within the film broken down into their individual elements and then pieced together so you can see the final shot. These video segments are also accompanied by music from the films soundtrack, as is the Flash Frames segment that consists of outtakes and unused takes (that as you would expect are quite amusing). The final video segment found here is a collection of 2 Deleted Scenes and 1 Extended Scene. Despite the language barrier it is still pretty obvious what is happening in these cut scenes, which is nothing that is required in a movie that could do with a few more cuts here and there as it is. For those who can understand Japanese you will also get a description of the scenes from the Director after they have played through where he presumably explains his reasons behind the cuts.
Advertising (10-mins) - Featured here are four Theatrical Trailers, five TV Spots (including two where Kaneshiro and Suzuki are doing some shameless extra promotion for the film) and a Music Video that features the main dance track featured within the film while the aliens groove along to it.
On Screen (28-mins) - In this section you will find video footage from two press conferences, each featuring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Anne Suzuki and the director promoting their film. As these sequences are purely dialogue based there is little here for the non-Japanese speaking audience unless you want to see Kaneshiro and Suzuki in normal attire, and of course hear the girls go wild for Kaneshiro. But then, there is enough of that in the next segment that runs for 9-minutes and is another piece that sees footage edited together with the films soundtrack. The footage in question shows the huge advertising campaign the film underwent, and also features some public promotional events Kaneshiro and Suzuki attended, including the premiere where the audience is almost completely made up of woman literally going wild for Takeshi Kaneshiro. If you never realised how popular this guy is, you will after seeing this!
But wait, that's not it. Also present are two easy to find Easter Eggs. The first shows what I guess is an idea for a sequel in storyboard format, which carries the title of R2: The Return of Mizoguchi. The second egg is a 4-minute sequence that shows two mercenaries who are guarding an alien spaceship and is simply two versions of a conversation they might have while they are viewing a scene that we see in the movie. Quite what they are discussing though I cannot say (other than the characters in the film whose names crop up).
Returner may lack originality but it just about makes up for this and other downfalls through its entertaining characters, slick visuals and often thrilling action set-pieces, its just a shame knowing it could have been so much more.
This Japanese DVD release is of a very high quality but also demands a very high price tag so I certainly cannot recommend this to casual movie goers, instead it only really comes recommended to the Asian movie buffs and collectors out there who just cannot say no to a Limited Edition set (especially one that looks this good). My copy is certainly going nowhere!