The Man in the High Castle. Season One. Based on the Philip K Dick book. Streaming on AmazonPrime, Nov 2015 10 episodes Amazon Studios
Lover of time travel and alternate worlds scifi that I am, I simply had to watch The Man in the High Castle, a series based on the book by Philip K Dick and produced by Amazon Studios. In this alternate America, the United States lost the war to Japan and Germany and both countries are engaged in a cold-war-esque hold on their new territories. The Japanese rule over the Japanese Pacific States and the Germans occupy The Greater Nazi Reich which extends from the East Coast to the Neutral Zone (The Rocky Mountains.) And there are some “colonies” where imperfect people are carted off to.
There are two major sub-plots. The first: The Nazis are more technologically advanced, alas, and Japan’s Crown Prince, along with Nobusuke Tagomi and the other Japanese command, fear that the tenuous truce will go to pieces when the ailing fuhrer dies. The second sub-plot deals with a duster-wearing bounty hunter named John Smith who is tracking folks. The primary plot brings together the main characters Juliana Crain, Frank Frink, Joe Blake, John Smith, and Nobusuke Tagomi. Their paths collide because of newsreels connected to a “Man in the High Castle” who may or may not be dead. These newsreels of a Victorious America are repeatedly denounced by the Nazis as fakes. But if they are fake, they look hella real what with the dropping of the atom bombs and all. And if they are fake, how have they fallen into this Nazi-ruled alternate America? Yes, we who already know the Philip K Dick mindset and philosophy of a matrix-like hidden world within worlds probably think we know where all this is going.
Juliana wants to find out about the newsreels because she hates the Nazis; Joe, because he’s a double-agent spy. Yeah, Joe’s a Nazi. I will repeat that: Gorgeous Boy Next Door Joe is a Nazi spy.
The portrayal of Joe pretty much encapsulates what troubles me about Man in the High Castle. Simply put, its exploration of race and racism is pretty ... unexplored; it kow-tows and gives passing nods and echoes to contemporary 2015 politics and political correctness but it remains pretty unchallenging and (although made by Amazon Studios) pretty standard Hollywood.
What we have here is a kinder gentler Nazi (“Nazism lite” if you will) and our obengruppenfuhrer and his friend are actually conscience-struck by what they "had to do in war." I understand humanizing a villain but the toning-down of the Nazi atrocities and the decision to “merely mention” them made me feel as if the filmmakers feared the mention of such realities would encroach on the happiness of viewers. God forbid we think White Supremacists actually hurt non-whites simply because they’re not Aryan!
Those who want to "get America back" will totally identify with Joe Blake, our main character Nazi. He may believe whites are superior but he is never seen doing or thinking anything sneery or hateful toward Jews, the disabled, or Blacks. His character arc is primarily a love arc. Because he's just so All-American decent to everyone he meets, he could become the idol of every contemporary racist who truly believes that racists are respectful, likable people. Seriously, Joe, as a true child of the reich, show your upbringing a bit. No subtle racial sneering? Even to yourself? I wish the Nazi double-agent weren't so darn decent. Shouldn't we glimpse him sneering at blacks, Jews, disabled folks?
There are a few scenes that are just plain questionable. We get a passing glimpse of a naked black woman prostitute (who does more for a certain white male customer “than a Japanese woman would.”) Okay, I’ll accept that a guy from a racist regime might have a thing for forbidden brown flesh. But really, does she have to be a prostitute? And is his dalliance with her really suppose to show us how free-thinking he is?
We get the exoticizing of Japanese culture and civilized spirituality -- so much so that the Japanese are portrayed almost as victims although they are the oppressors. I cringe but accept the fact that the Japanese bad guys are spiritual good oppressors (using the I ching to plan some of their tactics, for instance.) while the Germans are rational bad oppressors. It’s as if the screenwriter doesn’t know about the Japanese atrocities. This is where the writer in me wanted to include Japanese-Americans who had lost their property and homes because of internment camps. How interesting would it be to have them be conflicted American Japanese spies against the Japanese imperialists! This is what annoys me: seeing the story possibilities that were never even thought of by these filmmakers.
And then there is the plot convenience. I can accept coincidence in plotting. But I really do demand a better story arc for a guy who starts out as a Nazi spy. It would’ve been so good to see him in a flashback in some colony mistreating those who are not “of pure blood.” Or even a glimpse of him being indoctrinated. As much as I bewailed the over-abundance of flashbacks in Netflix’s Daredevil, I’m bewailing the lack of a good backstory and flashbacks in Man in the High Castle.
It’s not a bad series; it’s just bland with excellent actors doomed to play stereotypical or bland characters. Most of the story is plot-driven so the characters are simply being pushed around by the plot. They react to plot points in the same way an Everyman would, if said everyman were a decent guy, a spunky gal, and a grieving brother. No personalities whatever.
I do love the soundtrack for this series, though. Porgy and Bess' "Summertime" and “Sukiyaki” as background music? Hell, yes!
It's a good watch, a safe adaptation for those who like time paradoxes if one isn’t racially antsy as I am.
This is probably one of the few times when I wished a film didn't follow the book so closely.