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Tuesday, Sept. 28, 1999


Guess who's coming to bed tonight, Dad?

When is Ryoko Hirosue going to play a real, breathing human being on the screen? Cynics may reply that Hirosue -- the reigning idol of the moment -- is so much the creation of ad directors, magazine photographers and TV drama producers that she doesn't exist in reality anyway.

Nonetheless I find it passing strange that this 18-year-old gamine with the boyishly short hair, heart-shaped face and coyly elusive manner should have played a terminally fey "space alien" in her first film ("20th-Century Nostalgia"), a teenage spirit returned to console her father in her second ("Poppoya") and the transmigrated soul of her mother in her third -- Yojiro Takita's "Himitsu (Secret)."

There seems to be an odd cinematic chemistry at work here, of the same kind that relegated Marilyn Monroe, at the height of her sex goddess career, to playing opposite middle-aged gents, cross-dressing musicians and other types with whom she was never in any danger of actually jumping into bed. It's as though the handlers of Hirosue, that obscure object of desire of millions of adolescent males, have placed her safely beyond any possible realization of that desire, so that her purity may shine on unsullied. (Until she loses her onscreen virginity, after which anything goes.)

Working with screenwriter Hiroshi Saito from a best-selling novel by Keigo Higashino, Takita weaves a supernatural fantasy that will have fathers of teenage daughters heaving sighs at the sadness of time's swift passing -- and members of Japan's large rorikon ("Lolita complex") brigade fervently wishing they were playing the Kaoru Kobayashi role of Hirosue's father/husband. Watching "Himitsu," this critic heaved a few of those fatherly sighs himself -- and left the theater with a lingering case of the creeps.

The film strenuously tries to deny the dirty-minded their squalid pleasures at the spectacle of the dewy-eyed Hirosue, in the guise of a housewife, trying to seduce her middle-aged mate. But it is also self-conscious in this endeavor, giving the film its strange undertone of sexual tension. During scene after scene of the two leads making nice, I couldn't help wondering when they were going to get it on. (They do, almost, with a carefully calibrated explosiveness that acknowledges their characters' mutual desire, without fully expressing it -- the id is kept on a short leash in this movie.)

The story is yet another variation on the theme made enduringly popular in mainstream Japanese movies by "Ghost" -- the seriocomic survival of love beyond the grave. Riding on a ski bus in snow country Monami (Hirosue) and Naoko Sugita (Kayoko Kishimoto) go plunging off a cliff when the exhausted driver (Ren Osugi) falls asleep at the wheel. Soon after, Heisuke Sugita (Kaoru Kobayashi), a taste tester for a ramen maker, rushes to the hospital where daughter Monami and wife Naoko are on the brink of death. Naoko dies before his horrified eyes, but as she passes, her soul enters the body of the barely conscious Monami.

When Monami recovers, she is, in voice, manner and memory, Naoko. Listening to her recount every detail of their first date, Heisuke has no choice but to believe her, but when she slides into the futon next to his he also knows that their marriage will never be the same. She is his wife, but she is also his daughter. Celibacy is clearly the only answer, but what will the neighbors say? Obviously, they have to keep their unusual reunion a secret.

So Naoko returns to high school, and Heisuke to slurping noodles -- a job he loves with a true passion. (His profession underlines his All-Japanese good-guyness, just as being an eccentric inventor signals a character's All-American good-guyness in Hollywood movies.)

There are the inevitable contretemps -- Naoko talks like an adult to her daughter's teenage buddies and finds herself totally lost in algebra class, while Heisuke must fend off the attentions of Naoko's pretty math teacher -- and make excuses to an angry Naoko. Gradually, however, Naoko and Heisuke adjust to their new relationship -- and begin to savor the second chance fate has given them.

As the months and years pass, however, the stress of being husband and wife at home, while playing the roles of father and daughter for the world, start to take their toll. Eager to enjoy her second youth, Naoko enters college and joins a student sailing club, while Heisuke, watching his wife gravitate toward new experiences and new friends (including a charming college senpai), feels threatened and frustrated. There is, Naoko decides, only one solution -- she must become his wife again sexually as well as spiritually. But she is still inhabiting the budding teenage body of his daughter. An impossible dilemma -- unless fate steps in again.

Kobayashi, who specializes in Mr. Nice Guy roles, minus the usual sentimentality, pulls off the difficult trick of making Heisuke credibly needy, but not creepy.

Hirosue impersonates Naoko to amusing effect: accurate enough to recall the real thing, while not overly mugging for laughs. Also, the real thing, in the form of talented comedian Kayoko Kishimoto, returns periodically for comparison. As Monami, Hirosue is simply Hirosue: the foremost current practitioner of the idol's craft, which might be defined as projecting the sweetness and light expected of an ingenue, while knowing exactly how to make the camera fall in love with her. More than most idols, Hirosue has the gifts to parlay fresh-faced cuteness into a career -- but not if she gets typecast into otherworldly roles.

In directing this pair, Takita shows flashes of the comic talent he displayed so abundantly in "Kimura-ke no Hitobito" (1988) and "Byoin e Iko" (1990) and "Yamai wa Ki-kara" (1992), but he never quite manages to control "Himi- tsu's" violent mood swings, from light-hearted sitcom to heavy-breathing drama that dare not speak its name. Given his brief -- to make a family-friendly mass entertainment whose true home is the small screen -- it's hard to see how he could have made his material much more coherent, or palatable.

I couldn't help wondering what Luis Bunuel -- the master who transformed sexual frustration into painfully hilarious cinematic art -- would have done with it. I doubt, though, that his version would ever play on prime time.

"Himitsu" is playing at Nichigeki Toho and other theaters.

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