Why Is There A Japanese Version Of 'Sideways'?

Could the mid-2000's hit about divorced wine snobs possibly cross the language barrier?
Why Is There A Japanese Version Of 'Sideways'?

There aren’t many movies more flagrantly Caucasian-American in their conception than Alexander Payne’s 2004 hit comedy-drama Sideways. Adapted from the Rex Pickett novel of the same name, Sideways starred Paul Giamatti, Sandra Oh, Thomas Haden Church, and Virginia Madsen in one of the best movies of each member of that quartet’s filmography. The film won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 77th Academy Awards among countless other screenwriting awards.

Sideways is a witty, self-aware, and thoughtful contemplation on connection and regret that buzzes with the chemistry between its principal players. Sideways is also a movie that is aimed directly and exclusively at educated, upper-middle class people who want to watch wine snobs complain about their divorces in a 127 minute wine country vacation that looks like it was shot for an L.L. Bean catalog. That’s not to discount the quality of the film, it’s only to point out that Sideways was made with a specific audience in mind.

Believe it or not, there is a Japanese-language remake of Sideways, actually titled Saidoweizu, that is somehow even more particular in its vision. Directed by Japanese-American filmmaker Cellin Gluck, the 2009 movie is essentially a beat-for-beat remake of the original film, following four Japanese wine enthusiasts’ romantic misadventures in Napa Valley. Seeing as Sideways wasn’t even a blip on the radar of Japanese audiences, we’re puzzled by numerous questions – why was this film ever made? More importantly, who is this movie for?

When Japanese production studio Fuji TV first approached executives at Fox International Productions about remaking Sideways, Fox was surprised at the interest. However, with the growing popularity of wine in Japan, they saw some logic in adapting the decidedly American film for a Japanese audience. Both Fox and writer/director Alexander Payne gave their blessings to the film, with Alexander Payne later joking “I don’t know a damn thing about it, but I hope it’s better than the original. No, I’m really delighted. I got a check for it, and the check cleared.”

The remake was made on a much smaller budget – Saidoweizu had only $3 million to work with, as opposed to Sideways’ $17 million – for which Cellin Gluck and Fuji TV compensated by forming a very different relationship with California’s wineries than their forbearers. While the popularity of Sideways famously spiked sales of pinot noir wines, the movie also depressed the market for the maligned merlot varietals. Since there were a lot more wineries making merlot than pinot at that time, many Napa Valley vintners weren’t thrilled about the 2004 film and initially treated the Japanese adaptation with suspicion. 

Gluck assured the winemakers of Napa Valley that the remake would be much more appraising of all wines and, as a result, he was able to secure permission to film at their wineries on a discount in exchange for the gratuitous inclusion of plugs for every winery featured in the film. The numerous close-up shots of wine labels as well as scenes that show real-life employees of these businesses espousing the superb quality of their products make chunks of this film feel like a Napa Valley tourism video.

On paper, this film is more of a recasting of Sideways than a remake. Some details changed, but the story is mostly identical to the original. The film centers around Michio, a teacher and struggling screenwriter from Japan who returns to California twenty years after a memorable semester abroad in order to attend the bachelor party – and later wedding – of Daisuke, a womanizing former actor who, following his and Michio's semester in California, moved to Los Angeles and starred in a TV show called “Captain Ninja”.  

The leading male characters and the friendship between them are very close to the initial rendition by Paul Giamatti and Thomas Hayden Church, just with a tad less charm and nuance than the originals. Fumiyo Kohinata brings a familiar lonely neuroticism to Michio, but without the acerbic, self-deprecating wit that made Giamatti’s performance so engaging. Katsuhisa Namase’s portrayal of Daisuke has a similar sleazy magnetism to Thomas Hayden Church, but the language barrier makes the scenes where Daisuke hits on decidedly not-Japanese-speaking young women slightly awkward. In one such instance, Daisuke flirts with a receptionist no fewer than 20 years younger than him and tells her in poor English, “You must be Jaimaican, because Ja-makin’ me crazy!”

There are a few additions that enhance the experience of Saidoweizu in ways that deviate from the original – the pair of semi-bachelors cruise through Napa Valley in a vintage Mustang convertible, seemingly to emulate the classic road trip film Thelma & Louise which gets referenced in a great scene where Michio meets Daisuke’s wife and her family. 

After Daisuke introduces Michio as a successful Japanese screenwriter, the two bicker in Japanese about the descriptor “successful,” with Daisuke assuring Michio that “no one in America watches films with subtitles, they’ll never know.” Daisuke claims that Michio’s next film will star Brad Pitt – prompting his father-in-law to make the Thelma & Louise reference – and says that Michio works with Akira Kurosawa, exciting the Americans who express their admiration for the very much deceased Japanese film legend.

Fuji TV

What's the Japanese equivalent of L.L. Bean?

The roles of the female love interests differ significantly from the source material – the Virginia Madsen role is replaced with Mayuko, played by Kyôka Suzuki. Instead of being a waitress that the Michio character knows casually, Mayuko is a past crush who Michio tutored during his earlier time in California. Sandra Oh's character is replaced by Mina, played by Rinko Kikuchi, the only actor in the film with experience in Western Cinema – Kikuchi was the first Japanese actress to be nominated for an Academy Award in 50 years for her performance in the 2006 film Babel. Instead of being a passionate working mother, Mina is a young waitress with no mentioned family, no ostensible backstory, and a passing interest in returning to Japan, which is a recurring theme throughout the film.

The most notable change in the motivations of each of the four leads in Saidoweizu is that all of them, at some point, express homesickness for Japan and a desire to start a new life there. Mayuko ponders the possibility of moving back to Japan and starting a wine business. During their short-lived fling, Daisuke and Mina fantasize about opening a restaurant together in Tokyo. Michio spends most of the third act trying to convince Mayuko to come home with him and leave California behind.

After the moment with the in-laws early on, Saidoweizu starts to fall apart. The film oftentimes jumps from scene to scene with no connective tissue, and plot elements appear out of thin air only to disappear without a trace. In one instance, the movie cuts from a quiet lunch between Michio and Mayuko at a vineyard to a crowded, never-before-mentioned dinner party apparently hosted by Mayuko where Michio and Daisuke cook a massive banquet for about 40 unnamed white extras with no lines. The crowd disperses the very next scene without explanation of who they are or why they were there.

The key moments from Sideways are all present in Saidoweizu, but the dripping subtext and quiet implications of the original are flattened out by the less-inspired writing of the adaptation. Naturally, Gluck and Fuji TV recreate the “why are you so into Pinot” scene, only it’s at the aforementioned dinner party with extras bustling around distractingly in the background. The scene is stripped of its subtleties and, throughout the film, Michio and Mayuko repeatedly reference the conversation  with such on-the-nose lines as “Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon, our tastes may completely differ. It’s not what you drink that counts, but who you drink it with that’s important… there are no rules regulating the taste of wine.”

Saidoweizu feels more like a knock-off than a re-imagining. After a modest release in Japan that grossed just $1.5 million, the mystery remains as to why this film was ever made in the first place, and who the intended audience could possibly be. Was this made to appeal to Japanese-born wine snobs living in California? Or maybe for yuppies in Japan who can’t decide where to go for their next vacation? 

We can look at the changes made from the original in hopes that the answer lies in Cellin Gluck’s artistic vision – every character in the film is motivated by homesickness, and the film ends with Mayuko moving back to Japan. Cellin Gluck, a Japanese-American, spent his formative years in Japan before relocating to California in order to start a career in entertainment. Is it possible that the homesickness in Saidoweizu could be representative of Gluck’s own life?

In Sideways, Miles’ magnum opus is a semi-autobiographical novel. In Saidoweizu, Michio’s screenplay is based on his own experiences in his youth. Maybe the making of Saidoweizu is a meta-actualization of these writers’ dreams, and Cellin Gluck’s film is a love letter written to his home from the beautiful rolling hills of the California wine country. Maybe Saidoweizu is a personal reflection, a movie for Gluck and Gluck alone.

Or maybe Saidoweizu was just Japan exacting revenge on us for how we butchered The Grudge.

Top Image:  Michael London Productions / Fuji TV

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