To put it bluntly, Japanese cinema has become trapped in a never-ending cycle of boring, maudlin crap, underground flicks nobody sees, and animation. Most homegrown crowds only see foreign movies, because, as I have been told many times, "Japanese movies are cheap." There have been some attempts to create a homegrown event movie, but few of them have been particularly successful, and those that have were not exactly mainstream - Battle Royale, for all the buzz, is not something you can take the kids to.
Returner, then, may be the first successful attempt at a big budget popcorn movie. Unwilling or unable to risk this sort of special effects budget on an original concept, the writers have chosen to cheerily steal from half a dozen other films, throw in a slew of genre clichés, and blend. Then they made the heroine underage and added a yakuza as a villain, for some local color. Luckily, they found a director with just enough pep to make it all click pretty well.
If you don't believe me, here's the plot: in the future, the earth has been destroyed by aliens. (The ships look just like those in Independence Day.) One young girl is sent back in time (The Terminator) to try and stop the first alien invader before the war can ever begin. She lands right in the middle of a Matrix gunfight between leather clad Miyamoto (Takeshi Kaneshiro, better known for his work with Hong Kong directors like Wong Kar-Wai) and silver-haired, scenery chewing bad guy Mizoguchi (Goro Kishitani, who delivered another powerful performance in Takashi Miike's recent Graveyard of Honour). Kaneshiro accidentally shoots her, so he takes her back to his apartment. She proves she's from the future with her band aid sized bombs and the bracelet that turns her into some sort of kung fu version of The Flash. There's a good bit of ET in here later, as well.
This is the first time I've actually seen Kaneshiro in Japanese, and he has a sarcastic edge I never saw in his Hong Kong films. It makes him interesting enough. He and the girl are the least interesting part of the film, but the dialogue is never bad enough, and the acting always good enough, that they do the job. It's Goro Kishitani who makes the film come to life, however; the villain (when an aide accidently shoots a screaming child, he comments "Well, at least it's quiet.") and Kaneshiro's boss, a bead encrusted old lady (Kiki Kirin, recently seen in Seijun Suzuki's Pistol Opera) who seems to be in this business for the opportunities it gives her to blow things up.
But most importantly, director Yamazaki is well aware of what kind of movie he's making and has a lot of fun with it. He's got a strong visual flair and a knack for compensating for a limited budget. The result is a film that, while you won't be banging down your friends' doors to show it to them, will probably entertain most people. And that may be just what Japanese cinema needs.