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Tuesday, April 13, 1999

Death and the maiden filmmaker

Death can do wonders for one's reputation. James Dean was a hot young actor with one hit -- "East of Eden" -- when he crashed his Porsche on a California back road and became an instant legend.Would his admirers have become so devoted -- and in some unfortunate cases, suicidally deranged -- if he had survived the wreck and gone on to make 30 movies instead of three? Probably not.

He might well have gone on to a brilliant career, but his early end gives his performances in "Rebel Without a Cause" and "Giant" an extra poignancy. This, we know, is all we're ever going to get of Jimmy.

Though not a Dean-like icon, Masaji Kaneko had a Dean-like career: short, intense and fruitful, though in his case the fruit was only one film, the 1983 film "Ryuji."

A native of Ehime Prefecture, Kaneko was a struggling stage actor when he wrote the script for a film about a yakuza who tries to go straight. Working as a co-producer together with director Hide Kawashima, he assembled the staff and cast (like himself, all unknowns) and began filming on a shoestring budget. In the film's program, "Ryuji" cinematographer Michihiko Kawagoe reminisces how an assistant director came up to Kawashima and told him that, having used up all their credit with the loan sharks, they couldn't borrow any more money to buy film stock. "All right, I understand," said Kawashima. "We'll use one take per scene."

Somehow Kaneko and Kawashima managed to finish "Ryuji" and, after major distributors turned it down ("a good film, but not our kind of thing," a Toei exec told Kawashima), found theaters -- mainly small rep houses -- to screen it. A week after it opened, Kaneko died of cancer at the age of 33. "Ryuji" did not succeed at the box office in its first run, but it became a critical favorite, winning a slew of domestic awards, including several posthumous best actor prizes for Kaneko. Over the years, it became a cult classic. Now, after 16 years, it is playing in the theaters again, on new prints.

The premise of the gangster who turns a new leaf is a familiar one -- perhaps too much so. But few movie actors ever walked the gangster walk with Kaneko's combination of credibility and pathos. This performance came not only from research (Kaneko joined a yakuza gang as a chimpira, or apprentice gangster, to prep for the film) but from his utter rightness for the part.

His Ryuji exists on intimate, even easy, terms with violence and death -- an acquaintance that gives him power over the straight world, which deeply fears both. A losing battle with cancer may not have been the same as a life in the gangs, but it made Kaneko understand Ryuji's mentality, including his large capacity for rage and tenderness, often directed at the same objects. It's as though living in a dying body, with the abyss widening before him daily, freed him of the usual inhibitions and affectations, while bringing him closer to certain realities.

His Ryuji has an electric presence; despite his rail-thin body and hollow-eyed face he dominates any room he walks into. Still, he also exudes the beaten air of one who knows that he is at the social bottom, with the grime of the streets in his weary soul. He is the ultimate end-of-the-tether man.

As the film begins, Ryuji is a feared and respected sub-boss in a Shinjuku gang, who makes a good living trimming high rollers at private roulette sessions. His two subordinates, Hiroshi (Koji Kita) and Nao (Kinzo Sato [now Sakura]) are fiercely loyal, if not exactly suited to the work. (Hiroshi is a wimp with an ungangsterlike weakness for bargain sale clothing, while Nao is an oaf who beats up the wrong gangster and, when he tries to pay for this gaffe by slicing off his little finger, fluffs the job and ends up a bleeding, howling mess.)

But as we see in an extended flashback, all is not well with Ryuji. Three years earlier, his taste for the rough stuff landed him in the slammer. When his wife Mariko (Eiko Nagashima) went to Kyushu to beg her parents for bail money, they gave it to her on the condition that she separate from her no-good husband. Back on the outside, Ryuji learned the truth and promptly exploded at Nao and Hiroshi for being poor earners and at Mariko for selling him out. Now he is living alone and tiring of the daily hustle. The money is rolling in, but what's the point?

Finally, with the support of a former-gangster friend who runs a small izakaya, he makes the leap to the straight life and reconciles with his wife. Instead of shaking down quaking bankers for a 30 million yen check, he drives a truck for a liquor dealer and dutifully hands over his paycheck to a beaming Mariko. Instead of cruising around Shinjuku hassling hookers with the boys, he spends his evenings teaching his toddler daughter the ABCs. Life is wonderful -- but of course it can't last.

Compared with the hyper-charged violence of Tadashi Ishii and the hyper-cool minimalism of Takeshi Kitano, much of "Ryuji" looks old-fashioned and even clunky. True to the film's indie roots, the color is grainy; the editing, patchy; the soundtrack, out of sync and the sound quality equivalent to that of a 1983 pocket tape recorder. Also, some of the key players, particularly Kinzo Sakura as Nao, ham it up shamelessly.

Even so, something sets "Ryuji" apart from the hundreds of yakuza movies that came both before and after. The hero is not just another fictional tough guy, but a man with a real inner life and a real home life. By later genre standards, the violence is tame -- nary a gunshot is heard. Instead, in scene after scene, we see Ryuji laughing at TV comedians, heaving beer crates and making passionate love to his wife. We see him in all his moods, from dark anger to beaming blissfulness. We come to like him and wish him well.

Thus the ache when he feels the pull of the old life again. We want him to resist it, even as we understand why he can't. The scene in which he makes his decision and wordlessly communicates it to his wife pierces to the heart. It is the strongest of several reasons why this film has lived so long, despite the odds against it. As the poster says, "Ryuji Forever" -- indeed.

"Ryuji" is playing at Nakano Musashino Hall.

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