The Man in the High Castle is Amazon Studios’ alternate reality television series about one of the biggest “what if” scenarios in history: the outcome of World War II.
The Man in the High Castle is set in 1962 Unites States of America (USA) wherein the Allied Forces lost the World War II to the Axis Powers 17 years prior. The loss means that the USA as we know it does not exist. Instead, it is the prized possession of the Germans and the Japanese. The Germans control the eastern part called the Greater Nazi Reich, and the Japanese lord over the western part, which is renamed as the Japanese Pacific States. These two areas border the Rocky Mountains, which serve as the lawless neutral zone. The loss also means that the Americans play the role of the slaves who follow their masters’ bidding. The young adults do not have an inkling of the American way of life before the war and embrace the culture of their occupiers without hesitation.
While Germany and Japan succeed in subjugating the Americans, their relationship with each other is tense. Germany wins the race in technological advancement. Its people travel in supersonic jets while Japan’s Crown Prince contents himself with sailing by ship. With rumors of Adolf Hitler’s (Wolf Muser) health condition worsening, Nazi officials jockey for position to fill his shoes. In the meantime, the Japanese maintain their calm façade as they prepare for possible attack from the Greater Nazi Reich.
The Man in the High Castle follows the life of San Francisco-based Juliana Crain (Alexa Davalos). Crain leads a normal existence under the Japanese. She enjoys sake cocktail, Japanese tea and aikido. She has boyfriend Frank Frink (Rupert Evans) and friend Ed McCarthy (Ed Qualls) to keep her company. Their world turns topsy-turvy once Crain receives the reel of the banned film “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” from half-sister Trudy Walker (Conor Leslie) just minutes before the latter dies in the hands of the Kempeitai.
In search for answers, she watches the prohibited film. With the film footage showing the Allied Powers winning World War II, she gets no answers but a shocking revelation and a thousand and one questions about the truth and her sister’s involvement in an underground movement. Assuming Walker’s identity, she travels to Canon City in the neutral zone in search for The Man in the High Castle, the person widely assumed as the producer of the contraband films. She fails to find a man in any castle, but she meets Joe Blake (Luke Kleintank), a Nazi agent on assignment who works for Obergruppenführer John Smith (Rufus Sewell). She also meets a couple of semi-interesting characters, including the sadistic yet almost-comical Marshal (Burn Gorman).
The Man in the High Castle has Crain in its pivot point as the character to get to the bottom of the mystery of the films and their maker, yet her character shows inconsistencies and recklessness unbecoming of someone capable of taking down the members of the Axis Powers. Another main character, Frink, is as uninspiring as his jewelry designs. He is mostly a pushover who throws tantrums once in a while. I cannot see myself rooting for either of them in the near future. Blake is a step above Crain and Frink right now, solely because of his semi-interesting backstory.
Fortunately, The Man in the High Castle succeeds in producing complex characters in its supporting cast: Obergruppenführer Smith, Nazi officer Rudolph Wegener (Carsten Norgaard), Kempeitai Chief Inspector Kido (Joel de la Fuente), and Trade Minister of the Pacific States of America Nobusuke Tagomi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa). Even with shorter screen time, these gentlemen have more fleshed out characters than any of the three mentioned above.
Obergruppenführer Smith’s evil is pronounced in his ruthlessness as a Nazi officer, yet his scenes without the SS uniform cannot be more humanizing and relatable to husbands and fathers all over the world. Wegener would be Finn in Star Wars: The Force Awakens because he was the guy whose conscience sprouted in the most opportune time. His ideals and family life are the exact opposite of Obergruppenführer Smith’s, but they do not make him the lesser man.
Chief Inspector Kido is a man after my own heart. He knows how to follow the rules (seppuku) and when to break them (killing of the German assassin). Perhaps the most intriguing character is I-Ching devotee Tagomi. His idea to prevent another world war is far from foolproof, but his ability to keep his composure under so much pressure is admirable. Maybe meditation helps him to cope with stress that comes with his position. Maybe this meditation also helps him to open the portal to our world, the world where the snippets of events shown in “The Grasshopper Lies Heavy” are true.
The Man in the High Castle is a slow burn of a serial. It takes its time to get to the point and allows the characters to wander around at a glacial pace. I am sure Crain’s trip to Canon City could have fit in two episodes instead of five. But sometimes, characters wanderings can have its upside because the show has a kick-ass playground as background for its characters’ musing. San Francisco and Canon City look properly aged. Crain and Frink’s house is the best example for this. It looks really old, moldy and smelly. It also looks authentic. A poster of Uncle Sam in Canon City is another good example. It looks tattered and abused by the elements – which makes it believable. The Man in the High Castle has its own game show called Guess My Game. It features a Nazi soldier (instead of an American soldier fresh from a tour in Iraq or Afghanistan) to tug at the heartstrings of the audience. Crain is a fan of sake cocktail, I am not sure if it is original, but it only adds to the layered world of the show. When it comes to costumes, I adore Crain’s clothes. Her coats, clutches, jackets and pants are to die for. They are mostly in muted colors, like majority of her bleak world, but they are gorgeous.
The Man in the High Castle is worth watching despite the slowness of its pace and its underwhelming main characters. Its alternate history and the possible connection of this world and our world are enough to keep me interested. The wish is that, there will be more scenes that feature Obergruppenführer Smith and Trade Minister Tagomi.
Under The Man in the High Castle scenario, I would be writing this in Nihongo and not in English.
Obergrupper…Obergruppenfur…Obergruppenfurrer…fine. John Smith.
Oh, there is another. Oberst-Gruppenführer
Obergruppenführer John Smith – His name is dime a dozen but his rank is a mouthful. He joins the club composed of Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones, Dougal of Outlander, Captain James Flint of Black Sails, Kurt Weller of Blindspot, and Fran of El Príncipe.
Nobusuke Tagomi – He meditates in the middle of the day in the middle of a busy street and he gets to travel to our world! How cool is that!!!
Rudolph Wegener – I cannot pinpoint the reason of my fondness for this character. I just do. His suicide, although expected, made me sad.
Most Unlikely Character:
The Marshal – He is a feared bounty hunter who kills people at will. Ohhh-kay. With his stature, he is not very intimidating. Not one tiny bit. He was more believable as an evil immortal man in Forever than The Marshal.
Nobusuke Tagomi and Rudolph Wegener – They join forces to prevent a war between Germany and Japan. Although they meet clandestinely, they still risk getting killed by their own people or their enemies. Tagomi is proper while Wegener is a whore-lover, but they understand each other.
When Obergruppenführer John Smith learns that his son has a non-curable genetic (?) disease. He changes from an exacting father to a caring one in an instant.
When Rudolph Wegener bids farewell to his family. With the exception of his daughter, they seem indifferent to his presence. His son does not even pay attention to him at first.
When Rudolph Wegener kills himself. Ugh.
“Fate is fluid, destiny is in the hands of men.” – Nobusuke Tagomi