“It’s weird how people stare at you in Japan” observes Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), mere days into the buoyant and outgoing American’s new life in late ’80s Tokyo. “It’s like being famous.” Lily, a former nurse with a fondness for dancing and reading palms, doesn’t seem especially worked up about being noticed like that — about being made so aware of her own visibility — but her experience speaks to a broader phenomenon that Western cinema has documented for decades: Japan has become the de facto backdrop for movies about white people feeling conditionally (and often therapeutically) othered.
From “Tokyo Fiancée” to “Tokyo Drift,” the Land of the Rising Sun is often depicted as a place where certain types of gaijin can step outside of themselves in comfort; where Scarlett Johansson can safely take stock of her own dislocation on a daytrip to Kyoto, Tom Cruise can atone for his war crimes by killing some more of his countrymen, and James Bond can fake his own death and be reborn through the magical powers of yellowface. Many of these films, some more problematically than others, rely on Japan’s legible “foreignness” to create a clarifying distance between their characters and the world around them, and the best of them tend to redirect that foreignness back on the people who first projected it.
While too muddled and morose to hold together as a psychosexual thriller, Wash Westmoreland’s “Earthquake Bird” can be compelling for how it both explores and subverts the idea that everyone gets a little bit lost in translation.
Lucy Fly (Alicia Vikander beguilingly channeling Isabelle Huppert) is first seen in the middle of a crowded Tokyo subway train, where she stands out like a dead pixel. But this dour young expat isn’t quite as out of place as she first seems. She’s lived in Japan for more than five years, and she speaks the language fluently enough to be employed as a translator (we see her working on the subtitles for Ridley Scott’s “Black Rain,” a fun nod to this film’s producer). And when Lucy is hauled into a police station and questioned about the whereabouts of her missing American friend, she warns the detectives to be careful: “I understand everything.” Yes and no. So begins a story that unfolds in reverse from how these things usually do, as someone who already feels at home on the other side of the world starts to be destabilized when a stranger sees right through her.
His name is Teiji (Naoki Kobayashi, strong in his first English-speaking role), and he’s a photographer who lives in a studio behind the noodle restaurant where he works. He’s also the kind of guy who tells women that he loves them for their scars, and he talks to Lucy like she’s a tourist looking for a story to bring home as a souvenir (his transparent attempts at flattery include bon mots such as: “The first time we saw each other, I knew we could be truthful”). When an earthquake interrupts their first night together, Teiji instructs Lucy to listen to the chirps that reverberate through the city after it stops shaking; there’s a metaphor there, but much like the film’s knotted timeline, it isn’t worth the energy it would take to untangle.
The severe and introverted Lucy is forced into an awkward roommate situation with Lily (who feels like she could have walked straight out of a John Hughes movie), and we know that that Lucy will eventually be the prime suspect in her Lily’s death. The thrust of the story involves puzzling out how Teiji fits into all this, and how these three attractive misfits graduate from the innocence of a group karaoke night to a dangerous and erotically charged trip to Sado island. But Westmoreland — as both writer and director — is less interested in plot than he is in parsing the space between who the characters really are, and how Lucy thinks of them.
The most compelling scenes are the ones that trouble the water instead of charting a course through it. Lucy dresses in a kimono and plays in a string quartet with three Japanese women; she travels to Mount Fuji without a camera; she has a strange encounter with Lily in the middle of a bumpy night. Some of these moments challenge what we think of her, while others challenge what she thinks of others. The rift between everyone grows wider with every minute. “We all live in our own reality,” a detective observes, and when Teiji sees someone like Lily walking through the streets of Shibuya, he knows that her reality is tantalizingly far removed from the one he can see through the lens of his camera.
It turns out her truth is a lot darker than we might have anticipated; Lucy thinks that Death is following her, and she might just have a point. It seems she didn’t go to Japan to find herself, but rather to flee who he she was, and her first encounters with Teiji are so involving because he’s able to see her for who she is without being able to grasp what made her that way. Watching Vikander try to keep him at a comfortable remove — and deny Lucy from confronting her own demons — is the movie’s greatest pleasure, especially when the person she was and the person she fought to become are entwined together in a lengthy monologue that Vikander delivers in flawless (but obviously foreign) Japanese. In the rare moments when “Earthquake Bird” trembles with purpose, everything about it becomes easier to appreciate (e.g. Chung Chung-hoon’s lush cinematography, and Atticus Ross’ ominously propulsive score).
But it’s disconcerting how often “Earthquake Bird” begs you to compare it to low-key Haruki Murakami, only to steer things back towards the stuff of a more conventional thriller whenever the mystery of it all grows too abstract. Moribund where “Still Alice” was moving, and restrained where “Colette” was bursting at the seams, Westmoreland’s “Earthquake Bird” is every bit as elusive on the screen as Susanna Jones’ novel of the same name was on the page. It’s sexy at times and seductive enough before it runs out of steam, but without the depth and detail of Jones’ prose too much of the movie is lost in the same in-between that Lucy is trying to chart for herself.
Vikander’s big monologue notwithstanding, the Occam’s razor of an ending resolves the story on an empty note that leaves you feeling silly for digging so deep into it. Lucy might Fly halfway around the planet to forget who she was, but “Earthquake Bird” leaves us precious little reason to remember who she became.
“Earthquake Bird” is now available to stream on Netflix.