20 September 2007

"Only The Brave" & Kouraku

I really, really wanted to like Only The Brave, an independently-financed film about the most highly decorated unit in US military history, the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team comprised of Japanese-Americans, most of whom were sent to internment camps in the wake of the Pearl Harbor attack. It's an amazing story, a uniquely American story, and a real shame that it hasn't been told in the mainstream before. Most World War II texts gloss right over it. The fact that Only The Brave is written and directed by a Japanese-American filmmaker, Lane Nishikawa, makes it all the more significant. And all the more disappointing.

The film is actor-writer Nishikawa's directing debut. It shows, especially during the war scenes, as his camera has trouble navigating the chaos of the battlefield. It's hard to criticize him for not having enough money (narrow-minded film executives are to blame there, but that's another topic), but the budget limitations are evident. Visually, there's little urgency to the war stuff. Which soldiers are where, and where they are going, and what's in their way... it's all muddled and flat.

I'd like to say that the battle sequences are ancillary to the story of these brave volunteer soldiers and their journey from the internment camps to the army, but it isn't. The bulk of the picture is focused on the 100th/442nd's rescue of the "Lost Battalion," a unit surrounded by German forces in October 1944. The entire context of the internment of US citizens for no other reason than racist paranoia is relegated to a crawl of text during the opening moments of the film. If you were to walk in late to this film, you might not know at all that it's about soldiers who overcame blatant discrimination to join the army and serve the very country that maligned and repressed them.

Part of the trouble is the driving force of the film is explored with cryptic strokes. Jimmy, the platoon leader played by Nishikawa, is first seen as a veteran haunted by his memories. However, his relationships with his men are cold and conventional. There's little chemistry between the characters because they do little together save for stalk through the forest. There are poignant flashbacks spread intermittently throughout, featuring each of the soldiers saying their goodbyes to their families. One in particular, with one soldier receiving a "1,000 stitch" scarf that carries the well wishes of an entire community, strikes a heartbreaking cord. These share other details and give some shading to what are otherwise faceless soldiers, but they aren't enough to sustain the prolonged battle sequences and serve only to convolute Jimmy's story.

It's evident that Nishikawa wants to honor the veterans of the 100th/442nd by telling their story without melodramatic touches or fifty years of hindsight. The tone of the film is stoic, immediate, and the filmmaker has a fondness and a good ear for the soldiers' banter between battles. However, as a whole, it all feels raw and incomplete. Jimmy's haunted looks are never fully explored, undermining an intriguing absolution. As a historical retelling, Only The Brave misses the mark, and as drama it's convoluted and underdeveloped.

The Los Angeles screening I went to was the kick-off of a national tour promoting the DVD. Visit the film's website for more info.

After the film, Camille and I wandered through J-Town looking for some eats. (Isn't "J-Town" much cooler than "Little Tokyo?" Come on, try it on for size.) We thought the wise thing to do was follow a crowd, so we walked into Kouraku, a quaint place with the menu written in dry erase on the wall and counter seating fronting the kitchen. Of course, the dry erase wall menu was in Japanese, so we had to peruse the surprisingly vast table menus. They seem to specialize in noodles, so we both went for ramen with an appetizer of squid cooked in butter.

Squid can easily become rubbery and gross, but here it was fresh, soft but with a nice bite, and butter-rific. I don't think I can overemphasize how deliciously buttery the butter on the butter squid is. Butter butter butter. So simple and fantastic.

I went for a shrimp omelette ramen in a soy-flavored broth. First and foremost, the broth brings the goodness. Warm, smooth, and a touch sweet and salty. While I'm a tremendous fan of putting a fried egg on pretty much anything, I've never considered making an omelette... and then dropping it onto soup. The shrimp omelette by itself would have done the job, but the plain sweet flavor of the shrimp and egg in the middle of a rich broth, combined with the soft noodles is thoroughly satisfying.

Camille had a more hodgepodge soup that contained an array of proteins in a different kind of broth. I think satisfying is probably the best word for this food. Not fantastic. Not mind blowing. Satisfying. Looking at the menu, it's enticing to see that every soup dish describes the different broth they use. I think we'll be coming back.

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