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Tuesday, Oct. 26, 1999

The whole truth and nothing but

Realism is all the rage these days, with big studios paying enormous sums for journalists' reportage and independent filmmakers going to enormous lengths to make their fictional films as unfictional as possible. Among the latter is Nobuhiro Suwa, a former documentarian who does not even write scripts for his films, preferring to work from treatments that he and his actors use as the basis for improvisation.

His latest film, "M/other," feels much like uncensored, uncut reality. In examining the end of an affair it makes most other films look, by comparison, tinklingly artificial.

If it really were uncensored, uncut reality, however, "M/other" would resemble those Web sites with live video cameras recording their owners' everyday lives -- the occasional voyeuristic thrill followed by long stretches of prosaic sameness.

"M/other" is, however, a most accomplished work of filmmaking art. Suwa's aim may be that of the conscientious documentarian -- the whole truth, unpleasant or not -- but he also cuts away the dross of the mundane to expose the most intimate moments of his protagonists' relationship, both the violent and tender. At its rawest, the film seems less acted than lived -- but it never fails to engage our attention, our emotions. A slice of life? Maybe, but one by an artist who know that the order art imposes on reality is essential for empathy and understanding.

The situation is that of many a home drama: Tetsuro (Tomokazu Miura), a middle-aged restaurant owner, is living happily with his lover Aki (Makiko Watanabe), a zaftig young woman who works for a small design company. Though a bit puffy-cheeked and baggy-eyed -- the toll of the years on a once handsome face -- Tetsuro impresses as the ideal older man: unfailingly polite, considerate and attentive, with seemingly not a boorish bone in his still attractive body.

One day, however, he informs Aki that his 8-year-old son Shunsuke (Ryudai Takahashi) -- the only fruit of his failed marriage -- is coming to stay with them. His ex-wife was in a traffic accident, will be hospitalized for an indefinite period and none of their relatives can care for the boy. Hence, Tetsuro is elected. Aki agrees -- what else can she do? -- but she clearly does not look forward to taking care of a kid who is unaware of her very existence. (Somehow Tetsuro and his ex have finessed the question of exactly why Daddy isn't living with Mommy anymore.)

Shunsuke, who was slightly injured in the accident, is understandably shy at first with his father's "friend." Aki has him call her "Aki-san," an imperfect alternative to the dreaded "obasan" (which means "aunt" but often signifies "over-the-hill middle-aged women") and starts to take a liking to him: He has a nice smile, a playful sense of humor and is, after all, Tetsuro's son. But the boy also introduces a strain in their relationship; Aki can't quite forgive Tetsuro for recruiting her as a surrogate parent without bothering to ask her first.

Also, Shunsuke is an uncomfortable reminder that Tetsuro has had another life to which he is still attached. Wouldn't it be better for all of them, especially Shunsuke, if he returned to it?

Meanwhile, Tetsuro is trying to placate Aki, to assure her that, once Shunsuke is gone, they will resume their old routine. He is, at the same time, slipping into the typical pattern of Japanese fatherhood -- playing with his son, while letting Mom do all the work.

One night, stressed by her job, tired of the unwanted roles of housewife and mother, Aki explodes in recriminations and dissolves in tears. Tetsuro tries to soothe her, but a tear has been made in the smooth surface of their lives.

Shunsuke, though still a child (and played by a real 8-year-old), knows that he is the cause of the rupture between his father and Aki. One day, longing for home and mother, he disappears, leading Aki and Tetsuro on a brief, frantic chase, until Tetsuro discovers him, asleep, in front of a blinking TV in his mother's apartment.

All is well? Not quite -- Aki begins to secretly search for an apartment -- and a way to tell Tetsuro she wants out. Tetsuro senses that something is wrong, but doesn't know how to repair the damage. A new house? A new country? He is willing to try anything.

Then comes the news that Shunsuke's mother will leave the hospital shortly. Tetsuro is relieved -- as much as he loves his son, he wants to be with Aki more. There is something of the desperation of the older man in his attitude -- his feeling that, if Aki goes, so will his last chance at reclaiming his youth -- but he also has a strong hidden streak of masculine possessiveness and pride. Her departure would be an unacceptable blow to his ego.

Then he learns about Aki's apartment hunt -- and this gentle-spirited, mild-mannered man, this soul of tolerance and patience, erupts in a display of anger and raw need.

In playing Tetsuro and Aki, Miura and Watanabe improvised all of their lines, based on a treatment by Suwa and lengthy discussions and rehearsals. The effect is at once focused and natural; strong and flowing. Those used to the mannered, epigrammatic quality of most movie dialogue may hear the conversations in "M/other" as so much chitchat -- as though Suwa simply flipped on a tape recorder during an improv session and transcribed the results -- but nearly every remark has a place and purpose. In nearly every scene something important is being revealed, decided.

Also, as an onscreen couple Miura and Watanabe make a good fit, falling easily into each other rhythms, while creating the impression a relationship whose basis is more sexual compatibility and emotional need than true understanding, that is at once intense and brittle. Miura, once an idol star best known for marrying pop diva Momoe Yamaguchi, has matured into an actor capable of both nuance and power. A bit Al Gore-ish? Yes, but his aura of dull normality contributes to his character's unusual credibility.

As Aki, Watanabe is intriguingly inarticulate. Though able to handle the all-is-well commonplaces of ordinary conversation, she expresses her innermost feelings only in silences, blunt phrases and emotional outbursts. In her we can hear the voice of a generation.

"M/other" is playing at Eurospace in Shibuya.

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