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Thursday, May 27, 1999

Looking for resolution at the last stop

"Poppoya" is one of those high-concept projects that, to Toei executives, must have looked as surefire as a "Star Wars" prequel. The first, and main, selling point is Ken Takakura, 68-year-old star of Toei yakuza films in the genre's Golden Age in the '60s. Taka- kura may have been less than boffo in his last few outings, most recently the 1994 "Shiju-shichi-nin no Shikaku" -- Kon Ichikawa's somberly beautiful, slow-paced retelling of the "Chushingura" story -- but he is a legendary figure who still has legions of devoted, if graying, fans. Think Clint Eastwood in a hachimaki.

Second, "Poppoya" is set in Hokkaido in the dead of winter -- the setting and season of some of Takakura's greatest triumphs, beginning with "Abashiri Bangaichi," the 1965 Teruo Ishii film about an escaped convict whose heroic trudge through the white Hokkaido wilderness launched a successful 18-part series.

Takakura later returned to the island for such hits as "Hakkodasan" (1977) and "Kiiroi Handkerchief" (1978), while reaffirming his wintery image in "Doran" (1980) -- a tragic love story set against the backdrop of the Feb. 26 Incident of 1936 -- as well remembered for the heavy snowfall that fateful day as for the bloody assassinations of government ministers that helped precipitate World War II.

Third, "Poppoya" co-stars Ryoko Hirosue, the reigning idol of the moment, whose sweetly smiling face has graced countless magazine covers, TV commercials, newspaper ads and even one film: Masato Hara's "20th Century Nostalgia" (1997), an unconquerably fey love story about two teens who pretend to be space aliens. As usual with idols, the attention is all out of proportion to the talent, which is slight indeed, but the fact remains that Hirosue is huge, meaning a potential box-office draw for the kids out there who know Takakura only as a grandfatherly figure in computer ads.

Fourth, the film is based on a novel of the same title by Jiro Asada that won the prestigious Naoki Prize and became a best seller.

Thus the long list of corporate backers, which includes not only distributor Toei, but TV Asahi, Sumitomo Corp., Shueisha, Asahi Shimbunsha, Tokyo FM and Tohokushinsha -- big names in the media business all. Thus the massive hype, with "Poppoya" posters plastered in seemingly every JR station in the country.

The film itself, however, is not an eye-popping spectacle a la Lucas but a glossy melodrama designed to draw tears from stones. Also, instead of appealing to the younger core audience, director and co-scriptwriter Yasuo Furuhata, who worked with Takakura in "Eki STATION" (1981) and "A Un" (1989), targets men of his elder star's generation. Moviegoers under 50 may feel as though they've stumbled into an old-timers reunion to which they have not been invited.

The hero is Otomatsu Sato (Ken Takakura), the master of a station at the end of a local train line in a dying Hokkaido mining town. The line is about to be restructured out of existence and Sato is scheduled to retire that year, after spending his entire adult life with the railroad. He is a "poppoya," a name for the railroad men who came in with the steam engines and are now relics in this high-tech, bottom-line world.

But Sato wears the "poppoya" tag proudly -- every day, even when the thermometer hits 30 C below, he stands tall and straight on the platform, awaiting the arrival of the next train, just as he has done for years. He's also a man haunted by memories. Seventeen years ago, his 2-month-old daughter died after a brief illness and then his wife (Shinobu Otake), whose health was never strong, followed her to an early grave.

Now he is alone, sustained by the friendship of the loyal Senji Sugiura (Nenji Kobayashi), a poppoya who served as Sato's fireman when he was a train engineer, and Mune Kato (Tomoko Naraoka), the salty proprietress of a weather-beaten restaurant in front of the station.

His friends are, understandably, worried about him -- what is he going to do after retirement? Sugiura offers him a job at a resort hotel he is planning to manage, but Sato doesn't want to leave his station -- and his beloved dead. Then one day, he receives a visit from a little girl who reminds him uncannily of his daughter. She leaves behind a Japanese-style doll that her 12-year-old sister comes to claim -- but forgets again. Finally, the two girls' 17-year-old sibling (Hirosue) pays a call -- and Sato realizes that she is not who she seems. This charming stranger knows too much about him -- almost as though she has been living inside his heart all these years. Soon, she is calling him "father" -- and Sato is about to embark on the most unusual night of his life.

The movie is Japanized Frank Capra -- a warmingly sentimental fantasy about a winningly noble small-town hero who, as one can see from the first frame, will always be what he's always been. But whereas Capra's heroes were usually eccentric All-American idealists, Takakura's Sato is the straightest of straight arrows devoted to, not the Common Man, but his job.

Nonetheless, Takakura embodies this character with the kind of star charisma that cannot be taught and the kind of dignity that cannot be faked. Though the ultimate company man, who won't take a day off even when his wife is breathing her last, his Sato is also an admirable type. He is not just punching a time card, but living a life he genuinely loves. He makes his paralyzing routine -- all that everlasting whistling and flag waving -- look as romantic as marching off to conquer Asia for the Asians. This is a performance that's going to lengthen the lines at the JR employment office.

As the spirit of Sato's departed daughter, Hirosue gives the camera five coy expressions where one will do. I felt battered by this charm offensive, as though I had spent two hours watching Glico commercials, but I could also not blame director Furuhata for losing control. Hirosue is less an actress than a natural force with a born affinity for the camera, as well as a knack approaching genius for exploiting her fresh-faced charm. One imagines a theater full of middle-aged salarymen stirring out of their mid-afternoon slumbers when she trips with such calculatingly uncalculated gaiety across the screen.

Is "Poppoya" worth seeing for anyone else? Railroad buffs, certainly. Takakura fans, obviously. On workaholics, though, the film may have the same unsettling effect that those girls in minidresses who hand out free cigarettes have on struggling ex-smokers. Killing yourself for the company never looked cooler.

"Poppoya" will be released nationwide on June 5.

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