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Tuesday, March 2, 1999

'Kanzen-naru Shiiku'

In time you will learn to love me

The story line of Ben Wada's "Kanzen-naru Shiiku (Perfect Nurture)" plays like Bill's fantasy of what he would have done with Monica if he hadn't been encumbered by that inconvenient wife and job. Instead of trying to consummate their passion in fugitive moments betweenmeetings with foreign dignitaries, the film's studly 43-year-old salesman and zaftig 18-year-old schoolgirl enjoy days and nights of uninhibited love-making in a rundown rooming house.

The rhythmic thumps, raucous laughter and other uncensored sounds emerging from their room drives the sex-starved college student living next door mad with frustration, but otherwise they live out their idyll in blissful obscurity, far away from the blare of TV lights and bloviations of TV pundits.

But like the saga of Monica and Bill, the second feature film of well-known TV and stage director Ben Wada is sure to divide audiences between loathers and, if not quite lovers, defenders.

From reading the program synopsis, I would be in the former camp. The salesman, Iwazono (Naoto Takenaka) kidnaps and drugs the schoolgirl, Kuniko (Hijiri Kojima) during her evening jog and brings her back to his room. There he ties her to a bed and tells her, when she comes to, that he wants her to join him in a perfect union of body and soul. From brutality, in other words, he expects love to bloom.

The screenwriter, the 83-year-old Kaneto Shindo, also penned the script for Kinji Fukasaku's "Omocha (The Geisha House)." I found the film, in which a young geisha goes smilingly to her deflowering at the hands of a 78-year-old sybarite, a vaselined dream come true for the Humbert Humberts who prowl Shibuya looking for loose-socked Lolitas. Why should "Kanzen-naru Shiiku" be much different?

In some ways, it isn't. For one thing, it glosses over the origin and development of Iwazono's obsession. Why and how did he pick Kuniko out of the crowd? Did he hang around her school in a soiled trench coat? Follow her home, eyes beady and tongue darting? Take candid snaps and bring them back to his room for solitary revels?

It's hard to imagine him as other than this kind of creep, but the film instead portrays him as a true, if twisted, romantic, who failed to find his ideal union in a marriage with a former coworker (easy to believe given that he courted her by raping her in a company storeroom), but now hopes to achieve it with Kuniko.

This time, however, he is going to do it right. Yes to ropes and tape (otherwise she would make a quick exit) but no to rape. He may threaten her with a knife when she starts to scream her head off, but he also caters to her every whim, including bagfuls of goodies from MacDonald's.

Even so, kidnapping a teenager with the aim of indulging one's fantasies, however pure-minded, is, ipso facto, the act of a jerk. Sorry.

To further mask the reality of this sordid situation, the filmmakers give it a warring dash of comic relief. As played by Naoto Takenaka, whose long list of credits includes the recent "Nodojiman," Iwazono may display a strange intensity and sincerity, but he is also musingly evasive when his widowed landlady (Eriko Watanabe), who has her own designs on his body, tries to find out what is going on in his room.

Also, not only the horny landlady but all her boarders are wacky eccentrics. In addition to the aforementioned college student, who spends his days watching porno videos, there is a gay salesman (Shinya Tsukamoto) who mascaras his eyes and hawks bottles of spring water on his cel phone, a race track cleaning man (Shigeru Izumiya) who scours the stands for discarded winning tickets, and an S&M bar hostess (Asami Sawaki) who brings her work home -- and throws it down the stairs.

Some of their antics are funny enough, but they also point up the film's curious insensitivity to its core moral dilemma: how to present its Beauty and the Beast story as one of true love when its Beast begins it as a frustrated middle-aged lech.

Be that as it may, "Kanzen-naru Shiiku" succeeds in its central task of convincing us that Iwazono and Kuniko find the erotic paradise Iwazono has so long desired.

First of all, the chemistry between the two principals is genuine. Kuniko may be a lumpish ditz who scarfs her burgers with less than ladylike grace, but to Iwazono's hungry eyes she is a fleshy garden of earthly delights.

Meanwhile, Kuniko, an easygoing, tolerant sort at heart, begins to overlook Iwazono's unorthodox courtship methods as she discovers that he not only wants her, but likes her. Also, he is a generous, accommodating type who has the added advantage of being, with his lithe, tanned body and burning looks, kind of sexy (if decidedly short).

Finally, Iwazono leaves the erotic initiative entirely up to her, fending off her insincere advances. He is not after forced submission, but love, freely offered. When Kuniko realizes that he is serious, and that the feelings he has tried so hard to nurture really exist, the fireworks explode.

This is not the PC choice -- given a chance, Kuniko ought to punch 110 -- but her decision feels right, given all that has gone before. It was also the decision made by the girl in the real-life incident that inspired the Michiko Matsuda docu-novel that in turn became the basis for the film. None of this should be surprising. The phenomenon of kidnapees and hostages falling under the spell of their abductors has been well documented. Also well known is the reluctance of Eros to follow the PC line.

More importantly, however, the love scenes between Takenaka and Kojima, a former child actress who is Japan's taller Christina Ricci, are among the most joyously carnal I have seen in Japanese films, porno or otherwise. These people, I thought, are enjoying their work. And I, giving my guilty conscience a much-needed rest, was enjoying mine.

"Kanzen-naru Shiiku" is playing at Theatre Shinjuku.

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