Meet Miyavi, the Most Rocking Villain of ‘Unbroken’
“Unbroken”: Triumph of a long-distance runner.
As a sergeant at various Japanese POW camps during World War II, Mutsuhiro Watanabe forced prisoners to lick their shoes clean and once ordered American Louis Zamperini to be punched in the face by each of his fellow captives. (The ordeal that lasted two hours.) For Unbroken – a new film directed by Angelina Jolie that’s based on a 2010 biography of Zamperini, who was also a U.S.
He kicked off his career thanks to hit teen drama Skins and has now gone on to star as the lead in Angelina Jolie’s second directorial effort, Unbroken.The Angelina Jolie-directed film Unbroken is generating buzz on the basis of its two outsized personas: Jolie’s, and the late Louis Zamperini (played onscreen by Jack O’Connell).Based on the best-seller by Laura Hillenbrand (“Seabiscuit”), this ambitious film tells a story that would be outlandish except for the fact that it’s true.
Olympic runner – the job of portraying Watanabe went not to an actor but to a rock star: Ishihara Takamasa, known to fans as Miyavi, a 33-year-old musician famed for his manic slap-guitar style and wild fashion sense. “It was so intense,” he says of his performance, which has critics talking Oscar nomination. “Of course I never hit people like [Watanabe did] – I’m just hitting the guitar strings. The 24-year-old actor – who plays former American athlete and prisoner of war Louis ‘Louie’ Zamperini – has admitted he avoids dwelling on comments about any of his work. ‘All I focus on is exactly what got me here,’ he told Vulture. ‘Which is the attitude I have towards my work and how I can develop that further on so that people have got no choice but to regard me as one of the best in a generation, whether they like me or not. Louis and his pilot, Phil (Domhnall Gleeson), are among the survivors when the plane takes heavy fire and lands in Hawaii — when they and their crewmates must take another plane out to search for a lost aircraft. The story of the Olympian-turned-prisoner of war became widely known when Laura Hillenbrand published her biography of him, which served as the source material for Jolie’s film; it’s a remarkable story of survival.
When Louis Zamperini died earlier this year at age 97, he could look back on a personal history that included juvenile delinquency, a stint as an Olympic athlete and WWII adventures as an Army Air Corps bombardier. Meanwhile, since landing the the gritty new role, which has widened his international appeal, O’Connell told the January issue of GQ that it was a boisterous attitude during his teenage years set him on the path to success. ‘Jack the Lad was on my school report,’ he reflected. ‘It used to say that my Jack the Lad mentality was disruptive to meself and everyone else’s education.’ ‘That used to be the mentality every time I left the house.
That’s the situation everybody was in.” Miyavi scored the role after being approached by a casting director, and he soon met with Jolie, who aimed to make the villain multidimensional. “We wanted to put some sensitivity and vulnerability into the character,” he says. “He wanted to be like [Zamperini] but didn’t know what to do.” As a first-time actor, Miyavi felt tremendous pressure. That’s a lot of life to cram into a feature film, and the screenplay by Joel and Ethan Coen, William Nicholson and Richard LaGravenese already has drawn fire for what it has left out. In one scene, his character forces an emaciated Zamperini to hold a heavy plank over his head, pledging to kill him if he drops it. “I ended up vomiting,” says Miyavi. “It was really hard.” Miyavi grew up in Osaka and was a junior-league soccer player before an injury ended his career. And yet, the ordeals endured by Zamperini (who died in July at age 97) and the others seem not enough given what these men, as described in Hillenbrand’s book, actually went through.
He’s on the verge of being a juvenile delinquent when he discovers a talent for running fast and begins a career as a high-school track star — which leads to his placement on the 1936 U.S. On film, Zamperini is targeted by bullies and ends up on the ground, though his father later encourages him to defend himself; in real life, per Hillenbrand, Zamperini learned to fight back, leaving his classmates with “fat lips.” We also miss out on his later pastime of breaking into homes and outrunning the police; the film’s Zamperini is more of a misguided good kid than the book’s juvenile delinquent. Angelina Jolie, who directed the 2011 Bosnian war romance “In the Land of Blood and Honey,” returns to that role to create a film both heartbreaking and inspiring, huge and subtle in every frame, every scene, every interaction. Now, he’s got his eye on America – he just moved to L.A. and recently recorded in Nashville. “I just met Dave Grohl at a radio station in New York,” he says. “That was crazy.” Miyavi was able to show off his talents at the film’s wrap party, where he dedicated “Angie” to Jolie and covered AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell.” “Angelina was moshing,” he says with a smile. Presenting the POW drama like some terrible hallucination of the systematic collapse of society, the film is a breathtaking exploration of wartime human nature, from animalistic savagery to inspiring heroism.
Zamperini’s life story is genuinely inspirational, but the movie seems fashioned as a standard-issue profile in courage, with Zamperini, after a troubled youth, transformed into an almost saintlike figure. Sumptuously mounted, with some terrific action sequences — two bomber crashes plus those long weeks bobbing on a shark-filled sea — the film establishes early and maintains throughout the idea that after a difficult start, Louis is a man determined to survive and succeed. This demon, called by prisoners the Bird, is chillingly portrayed by Takamasa Ishihara (best known as Japanese pop star Miyavi), whose suave asexuality is far creepier than mere thuggery.
It’s an artistic choice that the film omits Zamperini shaking an impressed Hitler’s hand, instead dwelling on just how amazing that final lap was. Ruling: Hmm… The whole ordeal is awful, but Jolie tends to soften life for Zamperini, focusing on his relationship with a single guard rather than, say, his untreated beriberi. Jolie devotes the meat of “Unbroken” to Louis’ survival, at sea and in the camp, and his stoic efforts to endure — recounting the mantra of his brother Pete (Alex Russell) back in Torrance that “If you can take it, you can make it.” Louis endures, in grim and tastefully shot sequences.
When he and his fellow airmen are trapped at sea, he offers stories of the feasts his mother will cook them when they arrive home, and helps them sleep with a gentle hug, each punishing day. Zamperini returned to the States only to develop a killer case of alcoholism and what we’d now immediately identify as post-traumatic stress disorder.
It led to a troubled marriage and a downward spiral that was arrested only when Zamperini found God. “Unbroken” reduces all of Zamperini’s after-war experiences to a few postscripts appearing on the screen. But you can’t help wondering what it would have been like if it had been made by believers … or at least by talents not averse to considering the role of faith in human perseverance. Watching an army of exhausted Allied prisoners pull heavy coal bags up and down as they climb exhausting heights is as painful as any verbal interchange. The life force of the human spirit is repeatedly touched by Alexandre Desplat’s stunning score, but it’s Jolie’s stellar technique that gives “Unbroken” its remarkable power.
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