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Wednesday, Nov. 10, 1999

Searching for humanity among the ruins

"Hakuchi -- The Innocent" opens with an extraordinary image: a blackened ruin of a cityscape, like Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, with stunned survivors sifting listlessly through the rubble and an abandoned child crying from fright and pain. Then, in the midst of this destruction, we see a fashion shoot, complete with billowing, brightly colored gowns, preening models and black-clad cameramen clicking off a blur of shots.

The contrast between the Japans of 1945 and 1999 is stunning -- and illusory. What we are seeing is director Macoto Tezka's vision of a future in which war is unceasing and the gap between the ravaged masses and the media elites who drug them with televised dreams is as wide as that between the proles and the Party in George Orwell's "1984."

The inspiration for this vision, however, is less Orwell's dark utopian masterpiece than the work of Tezka's father, the manga artist Osamu Tezuka (his son has decided to spell his name differently), and the novel "Hakuchi" by Ango Sakaguchi. The novel provided the basis for the story of a TV production assistant (Tadanobu Asano) who becomes an unwilling object of revulsion and fascination for a malicious, but ravishing, TV idol, while feeling an uneasy attraction for the feeble-minded, if pure-hearted, wife of a rich, reclusive neighbor.

But the extravagance of the imagery, as well as the grandiosity of the themes (the nature of good and evil, the meaning of existence in a world without values) also derives from the manga of the elder Tezuka, who took what was considered a low amusement for children and shaped it into a medium capable of expressing the whole range of human emotion and thought. At the same time this "god of manga" was guilty of Baroque excess and windy pseudo-profundity.

This tendency is evident in "Hakuchi," which falls, "Blade Runner"-like, in love with its own decadently dazzling set designs, while trying mightily to impress with the mysterious depths of its story and the fashionable opaqueness of its characters. But for all its pretensions, both literary and cinematic, the film is onto something about the changes this country has undergone in the past half century. Like Ridley Scott's fantasy of a future Los Angeles as a smoky multicultural hell, "Hakuchi" shows us the moral dimensions of the present in a distorting mirror whose exaggerations have the ring of truth.

Again like his British senpai, Tezka can create images that strike us as fresh and right, even as they exude degenerate glamour or slither with stark horror. But he also has a literary bent that makes "Hakuchi" play, in places, like an illustrated novel reading.

The hero is Izawa (Asano), the aforementioned production assistant, who lives in a slum filled with generically colorful postwar characters, from lasciviously grinning prostitutes to beady-eyed hustlers. Though quiet and mild-mannered on the surface, Izawa has the mind of a writer, incessantly observing and describing, in lengthy voice-overs, the foibles of his neighbors and co-workers.

He is hard to fool, this Izawa, but he also finds it difficult to act. When his boss (Yoshio Harada), a strutting pocket tyrant who produces the highest-rated show in the country, rages at him for his bad attitude and ends by knocking him to the floor, Izawa silently endures. When the wife of his landlord (Kyoko Enami), a middle-aged temptress in kimono, tries to seduce him, he affects indifference.

Like so many people who live largely inside their heads, Izawa is something of an innocent, despite his veneer of stoic worldliness. When the star of the show -- the candy-voiced, acid-tongued Ginga (Reika Hashimoto) -- takes an interest in him, while coolly stripping away his mask of silence, he fumbles for a response. Even when she slices his ear in a gesture of cruelty and contempt, he can't react, other than to cling stubbornly to a job he has come to hate. He is clearly out of his depth, this Candide in a corrupt media empire, but he continues to nurture a dream of creating something personal and real.

He meets Sayo (Miyako Koda), the hakuchi (idiot) of the title -- who makes up in intensity of feeling what she lacks in intellect. Izawa finds himself attracted to this woman with the look of a bewildered mime. She lets him know that she is attracted to him as well -- and not only spiritually. But while these two lost souls slowly find each other, the world around them is crumbling into the insanity of total war.

Passive heroes are common enough in modern literature, but as main characters in films they can become black holes, sucking the vitality out of everything around them. Playing Izawa, Tadanobu Asano is not a black hole (this heavy-lidded darling of the indie film scene can be expressive and even explosive), but he spends a lot of on-screen time in a low-energy state, sketching in his performance with the least possible effort.

This quiet minimalism presents an effective contrast to the bombastic and self-involved extroverts around him, but 21/2 hours of it is far too much. Watching Asano act with the all the fire of a Gen X kid enduring a dull lecture from a loud teacher, I began to drift into a low-energy state myself, one called unconsciousness.

Although "Hakuchi's" dark future look might have been created by a fascistic fashion designer, its essential world view seems depressingly possible. High in their Media Tower, its ruling elites are supremely contemptuous of the masses they ostensibly serve. But with their only god the ratings, they have become the slaves of those masses, insecure on their thrones. With their only principles self-gratification and self-advancement, they have become monstrous and absurd.

Like Orwell, Tezka finds fugitive hope in the proles, who have at least managed to retain their humanity, in various eccentric forms. Like Dostoyevsky, who also wrote a novel called "The Idiot," he finds purity in the simple of heart and mind, but can offer no promise of easy salvation -- only the trials by fire called love and war. His is a very millennial movie indeed.

"Hakuchi" opens Nov. 13 at Shibuya Cine Palace and other theaters.

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