Edge of Tomorrow opened this weekend, one of the more interesting Science Fiction movies this year. It’s an adaptation of Hiroshi Sakurazaka’s novel All You Need is Kill. Buzz from the movie has made the book the bestselling Science Fiction novel in the country right now.
The movie follows the plot and spine of the novel, which must have been a heavenly pitch to the Hollywood studios: Groundhog Day meets Starship Troopers. A soldier fighting an alien invasion finds himself getting killed and reliving the same day over and over again, each time learning to survive and fight better until he discovers the way to defeat the aliens.
This might be the first movie in ages to capture the feel of a shooter video game. It has all the combat situations you would find in a combat video game, even stealth levels and a car chase level. Tom Cruise dies because he didn’t know where to go, respawn and go to the right place. Tom Cruise dies because he didn’t see that enemy coming from that direction. Respawn and kill that enemy as it appears before it kills him. Tom Cruise ends up at a spot where it’s impossible to go further no matter how much he tries. Die and respawn to go in another direction altogether. It’s safe to assume Sakurazaka, the original book’s author, has played video games. His other translated novel, Slum Online, is about people role-playing in an MMO game.
It’s interesting to compare the book and the movie and note the differences. The novel is very much a part of Japanese pop’s way of mixing and mashing popular ideas out there, combining Groundhog Day with the Japanese obsession with militarisation and the hardware from Robert Heinlein’s original novel, which has been a mainstay for the Japanese long before Paul Verhoeven’s movie came along. The soldier’s powersuit has been a common feature in Japanese Science Fiction since the 1980s, and Sakurazaka’s novel is only one of the latest story to use that toy. It certainly won’t be the last.
This and the new Godzilla movie are both Japanese cultural products filtered through a Hollywood lens. There are significant changes made in the adaptation of All You Need is Kill to make it palatable to Western and non-Japanese audiences. The novel’s hero was your usual Earnest Japanese Dude cipher who decides to learn to be as good as possible in order to do his duty, reflecting the target audience. The movie adds more background to the hero: he’s a coward and PR man who realises that the most pragmatic course is to be as good as possible in order to save himself and thus the rest of the world. The novel has a darker, more existential vibe with the hero mentally scarred and hardened by his memory of every agonising death he experiences while the movie glosses over the horror to turn it into a darkly funny running joke. Overall, the movie is a lot funnier than the novel.
All You Need is Kill had the hero forego love for a woman in the name of the greater good, a common outcome in a lot of Japanese genre fiction that suggests a male fear of female sexuality and emotion, that it might somehow change or trap him. There’s a male fear of women in Japanese genre fiction that has never gone away. It’s also common in a lot of fascist and right-wing fiction to have the hero sacrifice his love in the name of the Cause. In Edge of Tomorrow the hero tries to save the heroine so he can have a chance to begin a relationship with her. In Western fiction, falling in love is a reward and a goal while in Japanese fiction, falling in love is by-product and sometimes a distraction.
If there’s one thing I’m ambivalent about, it’s the way action movies are now almost all about war and the post-911 apocalypse. Where Groundhog Day was a product of the 90s, in prosperous peacetime where the hero has to learn to be less of an asshole and appreciate life and the people around him, Edge of Tomorrow turns the premise into a kind of war propaganda where the hero has to learn to stop being a selfish coward and become a selfless soldier. In Japan, the obsession with militarisation has been getting more intense in manga, anime and pop culture as the current right-wing government is pushing for a more active, interventionist military and a lot of young people are going to end up getting sent off to fight wars in the future. This is the same mentality that can be found in other series like Attack on Titan, the latest Gundam, the revived Space Battleship Yamato 2199 and others. Edge of Tomorrow puts a Western gloss on the story but the essentials are the same as the novel. It makes me wonder about pop culture being used to make young people used to the idea of war, and there seems to be no end in sight to this trend, especially when these movies continue to be hits worldwide.
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