Fest favorite Junji Sakamoto (“Face,” “KT”) makes a bid for commercial, crossoversuccess with “Out of This World,” a well-upholstered period drama about an all-Japanese jazz band, toplined by several rising young stars and a couple of English-lingo actors, including Scotland’s Peter Mullan. Set during the U.S. occupation of Japan just after WWII, film gamely tries to harmonize an intriguing mix of themes, but the result hits too many duff notes. Domestic bow in February reaped just OK figures; abroad, pic’s best hopes would be for cable and straight-to-DVD sales.
The members of a randomly assembled band, eventually called the Lucky Strikers, are a schematic spread of post-war types. The five first meet on the job — a gig to play in a Tokyo enlisted men’s club for U.S. soldiers run by Sgt. Jim O’Brien (Mullan, who’s no good at an American accent but is still scruffily magnetic onscreen).
Tenor saxophonist Kentaro Hirooka (Sakamoto regular Masato Hagiwara) is a disillusioned ex-soldier, and Ichijiro Hirayama (Shunsuke Matsuoka) is a double-base player who lives uneasily with his Communist agitator brother. Horn-player and junkie hepcat Hiroyuki Asakawa (real-life trumpeter Mitch) has the most talent, while pianist Akira Oono (Jun Murakami) is more preoccupied with searching for his missing lost brother. Rounding the quintet is inept drummer Shozo Ikeshima (pin-up Joe Odagiri, recently in “Bright Future”) who hails from Nagasaki and has family still sick with radiation poisoning from the A-bomb.
Sakamoto also throws in a white G.I. named Russell (Shea Whigham from “All the Real Girls”). He hates the Japanese for killing his brother and is a crack sax-player himself, adding conflict between him and Kentaro.
Film makes a fairly commendable attempt to show the desperation of the era, and production design, costumes and sets are all aces. Tensions between the occupying forces and the locals are shown on the verge of thaw, despite endemic racism on both sides, while American fashions, food and, most importantly, music slowly infiltrate Japanese culture.
Unfortunately, the music in “World” is only adequate, with versions of standards like “Take the ‘A’ Train” and “Sentimental Journey” fairly uninspired, apart from some nifty solo work by Mitch. Also, pic’s last reel sputters badly, with no proper climax and a dreary over-reliance on flashbacks in an effort to milk pathos.
For the record, docu footage at end features real Japanese musicians who played in officers’ and enlisted men’s clubs during the U.S. Occupation.