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Sunday, July 4, 2004

MEDIA MIX

Imaginative filmmakers shed light on dark side of humanity


At the end of May the Cine Pathos movie theater in Ginza was scheduled to run "Concrete," which is based on a "nonfiction novel" that itself is patterned after an incident that took place in Tokyo's Adachi Ward in 1989. Four teenage boys abducted a high-school girl and kept her prisoner for 40 days, raping and beating her. She died and the boys placed her body in a concrete-filled steel drum and dumped it at a landfill site. Later, they were arrested, tried, and sent to a correctional facility.

In April, users of several Internet chat rooms started complaining about the film. According to the June 10 issue of Shukan Shincho, the anonymous protesters said that the producers had not obtained "understanding" from the dead girl's family. They were also incensed that a woman who had posed for "hair nudes" had been selected to play the victim and that the four boys were humanized. None of these protesters could have seen the movie since it hadn't been publicly shown anywhere, and, by all accounts, were not in contact with the victim's family, who did not speak out publicly against the film.

Cine Pathos started receiving letters demanding that it cancel the film. Some contained threats of vandalism and violence. On April 26, the management removed "Concrete" from its schedule, saying it could not guarantee its patrons' safety.

This week, the movie will have a limited run at Uplink Factory, a Shibuya venue famous for screening controversial films. Uplink's president, Takashi Asai, told Shincho that "no movie should be stopped because of pressure from anonymous protesters."

Shincho doesn't address the quality of the film or whether it's exploitative. The flyers, which play up the relationship to the Adachi incident and feature a picture of a young woman, prone and in a state of partial undress, clearly uses the case's notoriety as a sales point (the title alone does that).

But Asai's point is valid. Making threats against movie theaters that show "Concrete" impinges on their right to free speech. This sort of vigilante moral activism is one of the demerits of Internet chat culture, which thrives on anonymity, but Mariko Sugiyama, writing about the case in Aera, sees a larger problem. "There is something weird about the way the protesters suppressed the movie; something similar to the bashing received by the Japanese hostages in Iraq."

That "something weird" is the tendency to brush aside free choice in an attempt to curb expression that some people find offensive. For better or worse, the Adachi incident has entered the public realm, where it is subject to discussion and interpretation. The protesters feel that making a movie about it -- entertainment -- is morally reprehensible, but sometimes dramatizations can tell us more about notorious incidents than journalism can. Critics who have seen "Concrete" say that, while the film may be lurid, it presents a compelling portrait of the social environment that produced these boys.

As American director Patty Jenkins pointed out to me last week when she was in Tokyo promoting her film "Monster," the truth is often what you make of it. "Monster," which opens here in September, is about executed Florida serial killer Aileen Wournos. Jenkins changed details regarding Wournos's victims and her teenage female lover in consideration of them and their families, but she also augmented accepted facts about the case with dialogue and incidents from her own imagination in order to facilitate her aim of "showing how a person becomes a killer." She thinks her dramatic version of Wournos' tale is just as valid as anyone else's interpretation, including those considered totally objective. "I'm fascinated by the assumption that documentaries are more truthful," she said. "News can be manipulated. There are 30 different stories [about Wournos] on the Internet and they all have agendas."

Hirokazu Kore'eda's new film, "Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)," which was screened at Cannes and opens later this month, has a clear agenda. The movie is based on an incident that happened in 1988. Police discovered a group of children who had been living by themselves for half a year in a small apartment in Tokyo. Their mother had abandoned them to live with a man in another city. Because the children almost never left the apartment and were not registered with the authorities (all were born out of wedlock to different fathers), no one knew they existed.

In the press kit, Kore'eda says he did not want to judge the mother, who was portrayed by the media as just this side of evil. The director wrote in the Asahi Shimbun that at Cannes he was often asked by reporters: "Why didn't you punish the mother?"

Kore'eda says the movie is necessarily a fiction, because he does not know what really happened in that apartment. However, most Japanese people who see it will know it is based on a true story, and if they know some of the details brought out in the media they will understand that Kore'eda has softened parts of the story, including one involving a child's death that is caused by another child. The movie, he implies, is a message of encouragement to the oldest boy who took care of his siblings, and it's clear Kore'eda has been careful in the way he portrayed the children.

Theoretically, the people who object to "Concrete" may also find "Dare mo Shiranai" offensive since the mother is treated not as a fiend, but as a human being. Her actions may not be justifiable, but in Kore'eda's movie they become understandable.

These three films are about sensational incidents that were already exploited by the media before they were exploited by filmmakers. In a real sense, they are as much comments on that media exploitation as they are independent creative endeavors. "I think 'Monster' is a definitive statement about the Aileen Wournos case," said Jenkins. "That may be a presumptuous thing to say, but it's what I think happened."

Correction: In last week's column I said that "Destiny of Love" is the first Japanese TV drama series with a zainichi (Korean resident of Japan) protagonist. Actually, in 1978, Nippon TV broadcast "Ai no Shisen," a drama series whose main character was a zainichi Korean.


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