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Tuesday, Aug. 31, 1999

Fashionable sweat on two wheels

"Messengers" is about the messengers who fly through big city streets on super-light mountain bikes, delivering documents at super-fast speeds. Though long common in the West, they are still rare in Tokyo, where most express-delivery services rely on the motorcycle (given that this is the land of Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki, maybe this shouldn't be so surprising).

One would imagine an edgy indie film made with unknowns on a zero budget. Instead "Messengers" is the latest project of director Yasuo Baba's Hoichoi Production company, which is best known for a trio of light romantic comedies with sports themes that became big bubble-era hits: "Watashi o Ski ni Tsurettete (Take Me Skiing)" (1987), "Kanojo ga Mizugi ni Kikaetara (If She Changed Into Her Swimsuit)" (1989), and "Nami no Kazu Dake Dakishimete (Hug Me as Many Times as the Waves Come In)" (1991).

Those movies also gave the places and sports they featured big boosts in popularity among the young trendies in their target audience. Hate waiting in long lift lines behind flame-haired kids whose ski gear costs more than your monthly salary? Blame Baba.

The bubble era and its trendy lifestyles may be only fond memories (especially for lift operators and ski-wear stores), but "Messengers" carries on the bubble-era tradition of flagrantly conspicuous consumption. The film is rife with product placements -- from the Budweiser beer that star Tsuyoshi Kusanagi drinks to the Trek mountain bike that he rides. (The program helpfully contains a catalog listing products and prices.)

It also aggressively sells biking as a hip, sexy sport, with plenty of shots of characters showing off their biking skills (there are a lot of wheelies in this movie) and looking fashionable in their colorful biking duds.

"Messengers," however, is less about the display of exotic biking gear than the romance of what is essentially hard, sweaty work: schlepping stuff up the hills and through the traffic of central Tokyo. Also, instead of college kids living lives of leisure on Daddy's bounty, the characters are independent types struggling to survive in a cutthroat business. This still makes it trendy -- both entrepreneurship and certain kinds of physical work (delivering documents, yes, digging ditches, no) are now considered cool. Yet it is different from the Hoichoi products of the past.

The number of job applications at T Serve (the messenger service in Chofu that inspired the film) may well skyrocket, but I doubt whether the streets of Tokyo are suddenly going to be filled with Trek bikes. Hardcore cyclists willing to spend half a million or so on top-of-the-line gear are always going to be a tiny minority in a sea of mamachari (shopping bikes).

The film's heroine is a bubble-era throwback. A publicist for a famous Italian fashion designer, Naomi Shimizu (Naoko Iijima) lives in an expensively furnished condo, dresses in the latest fashions and drinks only the best champagne, with everything on the tab of her boyfriend's company, a trading house that handles the designer's line.

Then one day, it all falls apart: The designer's company goes belly up and she loses her job, then the trading house gets wise to her scam and seizes all her goodies, including her condo and her Gold Card. What's a poor girl to do? (Her boyfriend, who could be helping with this mess, has taken off to New York to recruit another top designer for the company.)

What Naomi does is tear out of the parking lot in her red sports car, with the repo men close behind. Understandably preoccupied, she bumps into a bike messenger (Hiroyuki Yabe) going through an intersection. Naomi jumps out, to see if the collision has scratched the paint.

The messenger survives, but his injuries send him to the hospital. Naomi is not far behind, both to express her apologies and avoid a ruinous lawsuit. The messenger accepts the apology, but makes one condition: that Naomi take his place while he is laid up. His company, Tokyo Express, is in perilous shape and cannot afford to lose a single delivery. Naomi balks (sweat is not chic), but she has no choice: She either takes the job or does jail time.

Tokyo Express, it turns out, is housed in a cluttered shed somewhere near Tokyo Tower (which appears in so many shots one wonders whether Hoichoi negotiated a placement fee with the tower's operator). There is only one messenger, a lean, buff, taciturn fellow named Suzuki (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), who is less than enthusiastic about his partner's replacement.

For good reason, as it turns out: Naomi not only mocks his claim that bikes are faster than motorcycles in city traffic ("Are you out of your mind?" she asks), but is incompetent as a rider. Besides falling off every time she comes to a stop, she insists on covering every inch of bare skin to avoid a suntan -- the worst thing for 29-year-old skin, you know. She is, as one might expect, not the fastest thing on two wheels and gets the customer complaints to prove it.

"Messengers" is the story of Naomi's education, as she evolves from a self-involved champagne-swilling Material Girl to a selfless messenger devoted to on-time delivery. Along the way to this epiphany she develops an affection for Tokyo Express and Suzuki, though for much of the film he treats his spokes with more consideration.

Meanwhile, the Tokyo Express crew gains new members, including the injured rider's perky girlfriend (Kotomi Kyono) and a retired traffic cop who becomes their dispatcher (Yuzo Kayama). They must also deal with an unscrupulous motorbike delivery man (Shinsuke Kyo) and his minions, who will do everything short of murder to stop them from nailing a lucrative contract. Finally, Naomi's boyfriend returns from New York with a to-die-for job offer. Shall she keep pedaling for peanuts, or return to the champagne life?

As Naomi, Naoko Iijima chatters and clowns away with the sexy scatterbrain energy of a latter-day Carole Lombard -- and she happens to look terrific in racing tights. The problem is costar Tsuyoshi Kusanagi, whose performance is as flat as his whipcord stomach. Though required by the script to resist Naomi's charms for an unconscionably long time, his character gives little or no indication that they even exist.

Was the reason overwork? A member of the supergroup SMAP, Kusanagi no doubt had to shoehorn the film into an already insane schedule.

Or was it too much time in the saddle?

Whatever, "Messengers" made me wish I were on a bike, instead of sitting in a theater watching limp TV trendy drama writ large.

"Messengers" is playing at Shibuto Cine Tower in Shibuya and other theaters.

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