Predicting an eclipse can be a dangerous business in “Tenchi: The Samurai Astronomer,” a 17th-century costumer about the man who rectified Japan’s 800-year-old calendar. But don’t expect frisky action with swords or telescopes from “Departures” helmer Yojiro Takita’s plodding 141-minute biopic, which spends what seems like millennia dawdling on its protag’s countless trials and errors before reaching a foreseeable climax. The romantic pairing of screen sweetheart Aoi Miyazaki with band boy Junichi Okada could boost theatrical play in Asian markets, but beyond that, only science geeks are likely to be curious.
The film’s source is sci-fi writer Tow Ubukata’s novel “Tenchi meisatsu,” which chronicles the achievements of Japan’s first government-appointed astronomer, Santetsu Yasui (aka Shunkai Shibukawa). Born of the Aizu clan in Niigata, Yasui (Okada) is a professional Go player, though his personal hobbies are stargazing and solving mathematical puzzles.
Yasui’s inquisitiveness so impresses clan lord Masayuki Hoshina (Koshiro Matsumoto) that he is granted samurai status and sent on a cross-country expedition to observe the trajectory of the North Star. This results in a staggeringly long episode in which Yasui maps the stars’ positions, with nothing except nicely shot landscapes to break the visual and narrative monotony of the journey.
Yasui’s travels alert him to inaccuracies in the Chinese-derived Senmyo calendar, which has been in use for more than eight centuries. Upon his return, he embarks on research to design the Yamato calendar, attuned to Japan’s own seasonal conditions. He is fiercely opposed by the Emperors’ courtiers, who fear reform would threaten their mandate, but staunchly backed by the Shogun’s enlightened uncle Mitsukuni (Kiichi Nakai). The ensuing power struggles between throne and state are played out in stuffy palace settings, devoid of dramatic brio.
Even when the astronomer’s weather forecasts take on life-or-death stakes, the eventual payoff feels inadequate, especially after so much screen time has been expended on years of Yasui conducting tests. Had the pic conveyed the historical background in more cinematic terms, rather than through Hiroyuki Sanada’s dry narration, Yasui’s scientific breakthroughs would have had stronger impact.
In the same vein as Yoji Yamada’s “Twilight Samurai” series and Yoshimitsu Morita’s “Abacus and Sword,” “Tenchi” attempts to portray low-ranking samurai in a humanistic, down-to-earth light, in order to help contempo auds identify with their period milieu. With as many as 10 fact-based characters, each of whom has a hand in Yasui’s quest, there’s enough material here for a rich narrative tapestry. But few of the relationships have emotional heft.
Okada (from boy band V6) doesn’t bring many personal touches to the popular Japanese role of the geeky hero who never gives up, and comes off as just blandly likable. As his patient lover En, Miyazaki doesn’t veer far from her image in TV historical dramas such as “Princess Atsu.” Only Nakai cuts an imposing figure, combining political acumen with moral fiber.
Tech credits are well appointed, with a quality studio-set look complemented by ruggedly beautiful location shots in Fukushima. Joe Hisaishi’s sweeping, orchestral score makes the film feel weightier than it deserves. The title translates as “Clear Observation of Heaven and Earth.”