A few years ago, one the most exciting places to buy movies in New York City was the JAS Mart on St. Mark’s. A subterranean Japanese market beneath the far end of the East Village’s most embarrassing street, the store had a mediocre DVD selection and prices that were hardly any better. But it’s hard to compete with a place where you could buy the complete works of Hayao Miyazaki alongside a jug of Pocari Sweat and a shrink-wrapped squid.
The taxonomy of JAS Mart’s DVDs was difficult to pin down. Packed in flimsy cases that boasted reliably coherent translations of the film descriptions, the discs seemed less like cut-rate studio exports or top-notch bootlegs than a strange hybrid of the two that shouldn’t be questioned. While all of these commercially unclassifiable releases were region-free, only about half included English subtitles, and the teletext options seemed to have been doled out at random. (Air Doll: yes! 20th Century Boys: nope!) The DVDs, whatever their legitimacy, were clearly intended for the same Japanese viewers who relied on JAS Mart to help sustain a cultural connection with their home country. The errant non-Japanese cinephile who happened to wander in and buy one might leave with the lingering sense that they’d stolen something. Fittingly, the holy grail of JAS Mart’s library was a film that doubles as a feature-length manifestation of what it felt like to shop there.
From a distance, the cover photo of four people sharing a bottle of red wine at a picnic suggests a DVD of Alexander Payne’s Sideways. That impression is seemingly confirmed by a glance at the title, Saidoweizu, which—because of how Japanese accommodates words borrowed from other languages—literally translates as “Something called Sideways.” Only once you hold the box in front of your face does it become clear that everyone on the cover has been translated as well.
The idea behind Saidoweizu isn’t “What if Sideways took place in Japan?” it’s “What if everyone in Sideways were Japanese?” While it would be appropriate to call the film a remake, it might be more accurate to call it a repopulation. Whereas the original film is about a self-pitying writer who takes his best friend on a bachelor-party weekend in California’s wine country, this version is about a self-pitying writer who takes his best friend for a bachelor-party weekend in California’s wine country while being Japanese. The difference is not inconsequential, and the fact that the film never forgets that is its only real source of artistic value. Saidoweizu may not have been intended for Western audiences, but it doesn’t mean that this curious remake doesn’t have anything to offer us.
For better or worse, Saidoweizu is exactly what one would expect from an Alexander Payne remake helmed by the first assistant director of the second unit of Mr. Baseball. His name is Cellin Gluck, he lives in Venice, California by way of Kobe, Japan, and he “has worked throughout his career extensively in creating a cultural bridge between Japan and America.” In practical terms, that means he was the second assistant director on Surf Ninjas, but Saidoweizu—his first “directed by” feature credit—evinces an utterly sincere attempt to make good on his reputation.
Gluck’s version doesn’t acknowledge Rex Pickett’s novel or deviate far from the American film—Payne even retains his “screenplay by” credit—but it still fails to retain much of the wry wistfulness or aching regret that makes Sideways so special. Nevertheless, Saidoweizu’s most glaring weaknesses (a script lazily spackled with voiceover, the visual dexterity of a bad sitcom) are somewhat compensated for by how it gently reminds Western viewers that being the world’s default audience doesn’t make them the only audience worth serving.
If Payne’s wounded comedy seems like an odd choice to remake, the man who funded it feels the same way. When executives at Fuji TV suggested it as source material for the first co-production between the Japanese network and Twentieth Century Fox, Fox International studio president Sanford Panitch replied: “Wow, that movie?” Payne’s film hadn’t performed particularly well in Japan, but therein lay the remake’s greatest appeal: The audience wasn’t that familiar with the story.
A Fuji TV executive explained to Panitch that Japanese viewers may not have been that interested in watching Americans not drink any fucking Merlot in their home state, but recasting the film with Japanese actors and imbuing the story with a sense of cultural dislocation would appeal to local audiences. And with a paltry budget of $3 million (which only covered costs because the production promised California’s wineries that, unlike the American version, the film would promote their product rather than mock it), the financial risk was low.
If you haven’t heard of Saidoweizu, it’s probably because the New York Times article from which that quote is sourced amounts to roughly 80 percent of the coverage the film received in the Western world. The movie is listed on a number of popular torrent sites, but most of the trackers are dead—the modern age’s ultimate sign of obscurity. You can pay $2.99 to rent Saidoweizu on YouTube, but when you press play the American version starts, as if some algorithm assumed that’s what you actually meant to watch. (It can be found on Amazon’s Instant Video service.) When asked about the film, Alexander Payne’s only response was: “I’m really delighted. I got a check for it, and the check cleared.” Paul Giamatti rejected an offer to cameo in the remake, and seemed a bit more miffed about the idea: “My career hasn’t hit that low yet.”
While American films are occasionally remade by international production outfits, this is the opposite of how it’s “supposed” to go. It’s typically seen as our job to consume and regurgitate foreign films, homogenizing them for a broader audience. The thinking is that if a film is American, there’s no need for it to be remade, as it has already reached its ideal—the logic is that that every film would be fundamentally American if only it could. It’s thinking that Yasujiro Ozu had the wisdom to ignore when he built the immortal Tokyo Story on a foundation provided by Leo McCarey’s Make Way For Tomorrow, but by and large it’s still the way it works, and in Saidoweizu that sad hierarchy seems to apply not only to movies, but to the characters in them as well.
Fumiyo Kohinata stars as Michio, and the popular Japanese character actor, best known for his work in Audition and Dark Water, brings a relaxed sweetness to a role that was defined by Giamatti’s brittle self-loathing. Here a failed screenwriter instead of a failed novelist, Michio flies to America for the weekend, where he’s mostly defined by his desire to bring all of the ex-pats he encounters back home to Japan with him, especially his old flame Mayuko (Kyôka Suzuki). Katsuhisa Namase replaces Thomas Haden Church as Daisuke, the Americanized former TV star who’s determined not to let his impending marriage interfere with his womanizing. Rinko Kikuchi—the Oscar-nominated Babel actress who’s appeared in several international co-productions like Pacific Rim, and does the best work of her career in the Zellner brothers’ forthcoming Kumiko, The Treasure Hunter—subs in for Sandra Oh, and like the rest of the cast she refrains from tapping into the frustrated rage of her American counterpart.
Daisuke had to throw his native culture under the bus in order to make it in America, earning his fame by playing a character called “Captain Ninja” in a dubious show of the same name. He’s engaged to a white woman, he blasts “Danger Zone” as he and Michio drive south toward Napa, and he owns one of the hottest restaurants in Los Angeles. Daisuke’s impending nuptials clearly double as a formal commitment to his adopted country, and as a result, Michio becomes determined to bring all of his old Japanese friends home with him, his vacation slowly perverted into an unsolicited rescue mission.
It’s telling that Kohinata only channels Giamatti’s thorniness when Michio is chastising his Japanese friends for wanting to live abroad, and that his crush on Mayuko is motivated by how he sees her as all “that was beautiful about Japan.” Mayuko, on the other hand, is determined to prove to herself that she can make it in America. In order to win her over, Michio—like his American counterpart—first has to be escorted out of a tasting and experience a profound epiphany soaked in a wine metaphor. (“All kinds of wines are made in all kinds of places, each taking pride in itself... Live where you want to live, wherever that might be.”) Where Miles’ struggle is to open the door to happiness, the less surly Michio simply needs to find it. Saidoweizu is an unlikely reminder that exploiting your heritage isn’t the only way to transcend it, and that transcending your heritage doesn’t require betraying it.
Having said that, it’s also at once thoroughly mediocre and really weird. Gluck’s changes to Payne’s film, however interesting they might be in broad strokes, consistently expose how resistant the American version is to such reinterpretation. Delicate and wistful where the original is prickly and despairing, Saidoweizu is like watching someone try to put a prom dress on a porcupine. Miles whacks golfballs at the people who nearly decapitate him as they try to play through, while Michio gets a facial at a spa. Jack torments the women he encounters with the sex drive of a natural disaster, while Daisuke is harmlessly (but repeatedly) confused for Michio’s gay lover, and successfully seduces salesgirls by winking at them. Jack’s adulterous escapades are hilariously destructive, while Saidoweizu boasts some of the least nuanced gender politics since Grease.
By the time Saidoweizu ends with Michio dashing to the airport in the hopes of catching Mayuko at the gate, the difference between Payne’s film and Gluck’s remake might as well be the difference between Election and American Pie: Band Camp. Saidoweizu is ultimately little more than a curiosity because the film itself refuses to take any of the same risks that were required of its production. On the other hand, it can’t be ignored that Saidoweizu was an unlikely hit, grossing considerably more than what the original raked in at the Japanese box office.
Shortly after the DVD appeared on the JAS Mart’s shelf, the store was shuttered. It’s now a 7-Eleven, which is obviously awful, but not without some poetry: In 1998, 7-Eleven was rescued from bankruptcy by its largest franchisee, a Japanese company called Ito-Yokado. Make way for tomorrow.