What Netflix's 'Earthquake Bird' Gets Right About The Experience Of Living In Japan As A Foreigner

Netflix's Earthquake Bird, which hit the streaming service last Friday, uses expat life in Tokyo as the backdrop for a murder mystery. Scored by Atticus Ross, the film stars Alicia Vikander, Riley Keough, Jack Huston, and Japanese actors Naoki Kobayashi and Kiki Sukezana—the latter of whom recently played the central antagonist in AMC's The Terror: Infamy. Ridley Scott also serves as a co-producer here, as he did with that series.

There's a long line of Hollywood movies set in Japan, many of which betray a decidedly ethnocentric perspective. When we first meet Vikander's character, she's working as a translator, doing subtitles for Scott's 1989 yakuza thriller, Black Rain. As a Netflix film, Earthquake Bird comes on the heels of last year's The Outsider, another such thriller that cast everyone's least favorite Joker, Jared Leto, in the role of an unlikely yakuza enforcer. In contrast to that movie's hollow posturing, Earthquake Bird is much more grounded in some semblance of recognizable reality. It isn't a perfect film, but parts of it ring truer than the typical "gaijin in Tokyo" flick, because it was made with an eye toward authenticity by a director who lived in Japan and an actress who committed herself to learning Japanese.

Earthquake Bird sees Vikander returning to the chilly mode of her breakout performance in Ex Machina. In that film, she played a humanoid robot. In this one, she plays a human who might come across as robotic at times, insofar as she is emotionally subdued. Her character, Lucy Fly, is the kind of person who buttons up her collar on the train, eyes darting around before settling back down into a benumbed stare out the window. When the train arrives at the station, she's the only modestly dressed, non-Japanese face in the crowd of schoolgirls and salarymen who come filing out onto the platform. At work, she greets her colleagues demurely, shuffling over to her desk on an office floor that eschews cubicles in favor of a more open, newsroom-like layout.

That's Tokyo. Since 2013, when the city won its bid to host the Olympics, the number of foreign tourists in Japan has steadily increased, reaching record numbers in 2018 and the first half of 2019. However, the country's population is still 98% ethnically Japanese and I can say from personal experience that there are many times when you might indeed look around and be the only non-Japanese person on the train or at your job.

Depicting that, in and of itself, doesn't make Earthquake Bird special. After all, we saw Scarlett Johansson riding the train alone and staring out the window, too. The difference here is that Lucy lives and works in Tokyo. She's not holed up in the posh Park Hyatt hotel, using the city as her own personal playground, like the characters in Lost in Translation. She's down on the ground, commuting to work.

Director Wash Westmoreland studied at Fukuoka University on Japan's southern island of Kyushu, and in Earthquake Bird, his camera seems less interested in Tokyo's cosmopolitan side than its gray, lived-in, middle-class underbelly. With its back-alley soba shops and tatami-matted homes, the film does a good job of capturing a more local milieu. It does feature the obligatory shot of Mount Fuji, though notably, none of the weekend backpackers who survey it have their camera with them. At one point, we do see Lucy wandering around Tokyo's streets at night with neon signs in the background, however she's in a daze and the signs are out of focus.

At the same time, Earthquake Bird is just as likely to take its characters off-the-beaten path, on a trip to Sado Island, the place that inspired the washtub boat scene in the Studio Ghibli classic Spirited Away. Much of the film's dialogue is in Japanese with English subtitles. At one point, Vikander — who is Swedish and also learned Danish for her role in A Royal Affair — even shows off her language prowess with a full, naturalistic monologue in Japanese in a police interrogation room.

It's there that Lucy relates her involvement in a love triangle with a tall, dark, and handsome photographer, Teiji (played by Kobayashi), and a fellow expat, Lily (played by Keough), who is new to Japan and has more of a bubblegum personality. The very first image we see onscreen is of three trains crossing paths: two of them run parallel in opposite directions, while the other ventures off on a perpendicular tunnel track beneath them. That's an apt visual metaphor for Teiji, Lily, and Lucy. The police are investigating Lily's disappearance; as the film opens, we see her face on a missing persons poster in the train station.

My own Japanese still isn't good enough to critique the finer points of Vikander's every line reading, but as someone who has lived in Tokyo since 2010 (with a two-year detour elsewhere in Japan), I can say that Lucy very much sounds like a Japanese-speaking foreigner that you might meet here. Her overall intonation doesn't immediately scream "shallow Western actor" like it has with so many other stars in movies like this. There are times when a foreign lilt enters her voice and it's obvious this isn't her first language, but on the whole, she acquits herself better than, say, Sarah Michelle Gellar in The Grudge, who stumbled over the pronunciation of basic greetings like, "Arigatou gozaimasu," (translation: "Thank you,") as she accosted strangers on the street in Tokyo, asking for directions to a haunted house.

Earthquake Bird has received mixed reviews, and I'm aware that some of these faithful flourishes might not matter to the average Netflix viewer outside Japan. From a storytelling standpoint, I was less impressed with the disposable mechanics of the movie's plot than I was with the believability that it brought to Lucy and Lily as characters. This is one of those movies where the sum of its individual parts may be greater than the whole, if that makes any sense.

Lucy and Lily's similar-sounding names mark them as two different sides of the same expat coin. Lily embodies the flippancy and fresh-eyed nature of first-year expats. Having yet to adopt Japanese manners, she borrows a coat like she's entitled to it. "It's weird how everyone stares at you in Japan," she says. "It's like being famous."

Lily is less caught up in the dreamy wonderment of a foreign adventure and more caught up in the confusion of cultural adjustment. At the restaurant, she needs help ordering. Lucy teaches her to say, "Koohii o hitotsu kudasai." ("One coffee, please.") Nowadays, you'd probably be able to ask for an English menu, or at least point to a picture of what you wanted on the menu, but then again, this film is set thirty years ago, before the proliferation of video chat—when a mere twenty-minute phone call could still rack up a hundred dollars worth of long-distance charges.

When Lily's big moment comes and she speaks her Japanese phrase to order coffee from the waitress, she says it with such a clumsy accent that the character almost seems like a caricature of other American girls in other American movies that have been set in Japan. Later, however, we learn that there's more to her than meets the eye: she was a nurse at George Washington Hospital in Washington, D.C. "I wasn't always a bartender," she reveals.

For her part, Lucy has deeper roots in Tokyo, having lived in the city for half a decade. Yet her last name, Fly, hints that she, too, may be flying away from her old life: trying to integrate as a kimono-wearing member of Japanese society as a means of escaping from some hidden, long-buried trauma back in her home country. She barely smiles, but it's not so much that she's morose as it is she's stoic in the face of guilt and personal hardship. That's a distinctly Japanese characteristic, one that enables her to find kinship with one of the middle-aged ladies in her string quartet.

Before she and Lily start palling around, Lucy displays a jaded attitude toward the Tokyo newcomer, telling her karaoke buddy, Bob (Huston), that she doesn't have time to babysit every person like that who comes along. This, too, is relatable if you've lived in Tokyo long enough and seen the revolving door of expats turn often enough.

Earthquake Bird is an adaptation of Susanna Jones' award-winning crime novel. The film's title springs from a mythic bird that comes out to sing after earthquakes. Lucy's quake is emotional: she's grappling with loneliness, until she meets the secretive Teiji and opens herself up to jealousy as Lily takes an interest in him.

Vikander was the biggest star on hand at this year's Tokyo International Film Festival, and in some ways, her willingness to show up, be fully present, and adapt herself to the language and source material — instead of the other way around — puts the likes of Johansson to shame. (Here I'm thinking, not only of Lost in Translation, but also the whitewashed, live-action version of Ghost in the Shell). In the past, many Hollywood movies set in Japan have actually done the bulk of their filming elsewhere, with places like New South Wales (James Mangold's The Wolverine) and Taiwan (Martin Scorsese's Silence) filling in for the Land of the Rising Sun. Earthquake Bird, on the other hand, was shot on location in Japan with a foreign director and cast, and the vision of Tokyo it presents feels closer to the day-to-day reality of the expat experience.

Again, the film isn't without its issues. More of those pop up as it veers into the territory of a steamy psychological thriller, founded on implausible romantic encounters and go-nowhere visual hallucinations. In the end, some of the film's plot twists don't fully add up, but as an expat whose life mirrors that of the main character in some respects, I found it to be a step in the right direction in terms of how it depicts the real experience of living in Japan as a foreigner.