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Tuesday, April 6, 1999

Cross-fertilization yields 'Blue Fish'

Is it just me or has anyone else noticed how once-divergent popular media such as movies, animation, video games and music videos are coming together in Japan, with movies doing the most converging?

The characters in Katsuhito Ishii's comic chase film "Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Sharkskin Man and Peachhip Woman)" replicate the look and feel of futuristic animation in not only their highly stylized costumes (which Ishii has dubbed "hyper fashion"), but also their actions and attitudes, from the manic behavior of the villains to the cool heroics of the good guy thief played by Tadanobu Asano. One is not watching actors so much as living cartoons.

This cross-fertilization has various causes, one being the increasingly porous borders between entertainment industries. More young directors are getting their start making TV commercials or music videos, not working as ADs for directorial sempai. These newcomers regard movies as, not the peak of the entertainment pyramid, but just another visual media that they can use as a repository for their entire viewing experience.

Seeing "Aoi Sakana (Blue Fish)," the debut film by former magazine editor, FM radio director and video software producer Yosuke Nakagawa, I got another take on where this cross-fertilization might be leading. While shooting his attractive young actors like models in a TV commercial for a hip clothing line and foregrounding Keiichiro Shibuya's simply evocative, if over-explanatory, piano score in the manner of a music video, Nakagawa is also hearkening back, however unconsciously, to the lyricism and romanticism of silent films. His real influences are not Gap ads so much as Chaplin and Griffith.

For one thing, he keeps the dialogue to a bare minimum, particularly in depicting the romance between his two principals -- a fiery-eyed beauty salon assistant (Mari Ouchi) and a laconic gangster (Keigo Heshiki). He could have easily written their lines on a handful of intertitles.

For another, he reduces his story to its basics and tells it with a refreshing directness, in exactly 60 minutes (a length typical of early silent features). One could, in fact, turn off the sound and still understand what is going on in nearly every scene.

For still another, he rejects the usual distancing irony in favor of poeticized intensity. Playing the assistant, Ouchi moves with a dancerly expressiveness and burns with a pure-hearted passion reminiscent of Chaplin-favorite Paulette Godard. Her scenes with the tall, long-haired hunk played by noise band rocker Heshiki, are not staged so much as choreographed.

I don't want to overdraw the Griffith-Chaplin comparisons. The heroine's pursuit of her man is too bold for silent-era sensibilities -- one could not imagine Paulette stealing into the Tramp's room and waiting all night for his return. (What she and one-time paramour Chaplin did in real life is another matter, however.) Also, neither D.W. nor Charlie would have used the long traveling shot that, in the film's opening scene, explores the variety of plant life on an Okinawan back street. In the cool blue tones of Ichigo Sugawara's cinematography this and other evocations of the island's beauty have an impact that they would obviously lack in black and white.

The story begins as prototypical boy-meets-girl. Ryoko (Ouchi) is an 18-year-old girl sweeping floors and tending plants at a beauty parlor in a rundown Naha shopping arcade. In her time off she chats with her best friend (Miyuki Tobaru), another shop girl, and together they hang out with boys who work in the same arcade. Life is easy, but to the increasingly restless Ryoko, pointless. Then one day she drops a towel from the second-floor balcony to the street below, at the feet of Kazuya (Heshiki), a long-legged dreamboat.

But instead of answering her call for help, Kazuya strides up the stairs, opens an unmarked door on the opposite side of the arcade and disappears inside. He is selfish and rude -- and Ryoko can't take her eyes off him.

We soon find out why Kazuya is so preoccupied; he is a drug dealer in cahoots with Shanghaiese gangsters. They plan to muscle into the territory of the local Taiwanese mob -- a highly dangerous game.

Ryoko keeps trying to get next to Kazuya and Kazuya keeps fending her off with monosyllables and thousand-yard stares. Then, just as her persistence is beginning to pay off, his Taiwan rivals burst into his room, rip off his white powder and, after issuing a few sardonic but fully intended threats, vanish into the night. Kazuya takes off in pursuit while Ryoko, who is still ignorant of his true occupation, works up the nerve to knock on his door.

Finding it open, she walks in and waits, but will Kazuya ever come back?

In this bald retelling Kazuya may seem an egoistical low-life and Ryoko, yet another hormone-besotted teen, but in Nakagawa's hands, their brief encounter achieves a dignity and pathos.

True, his camera lingered too often and long on the cloud formations, narrow back streets and other local Okinawan color, until I began to feel I was in a tranced-out travelogue. But in the crucial scenes, it created precisely the right mood -- a mixture of daybreak freshness, tropical sensuousness and mortal sadness.

And yes, there was an obtuseness to Ryoko's pursuit that annoyed -- can't you see, I wanted to tell her, what bad news this guy is? -- but I was won over by her sincerity and courage. Though Ouchi, a much-in-demand model, may be appearing in her first film, she gives a performance that is all essence, no wasted motion. She is Ryoko -- and she makes "Aoi Sakana" an extraordinary experience.

"Aoi Sakana" is the late show at Eurospace in Shibuya.

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