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Tuesday, Dec. 14, 1999

'One Step' in a great acting career


Why, I used to ask myself, is Tadanobu Asano the hardest working actor in Japanese films? Obviously, you have to work hard if you want to earn a living as a Japanese movie actor -- no one is getting any $20 million paydays here -- and that is what Asano has tried to do. A former pop star who made his screen debut in 1990, Asano has since starred in a string of indie films whose budgets would not keep Bruce Willis in cappuccino, when he could easily have followed in the footsteps of nearly all his pretty-boy acting senpai: appearances in schlock TV dramas and idiot TV variety shows to bulk up the bank account.

As it turned out, Asano's career choices weren't as quixotic as they once seemed. Many of those indie films, including "Maboroshi," "Focus" and "Helpless," have won praise abroad, and Asano himself has received a slew of awards, both foreign and domestic, for his work.

Today he is recognized as the leading international actor of his generation, while many of his "multitalent" contemporaries are already looking over their shoulders at the coming generation of cute hunks -- and forward to a future of dinner shows and guest shots.

His latest film, "Jirai o Fundara Sayonara (One Step on a Mine, It's All Over)," shows why he deserves that recognition. Though the film -- a recounting of the brief but eventful career of war photographer Taizo Ichinose -- is not the best on Asano's credit list (I would nominate Satoshi Isaka's "Focus" for that honor), it gives him a chance to stretch beyond the inner-directed loner types he usually portrays, from the unhinged otaku in "Focus" to the suicidal husband in "Maboroshi."

In "Jirai" he plays the most outer-directed type of Japanese imaginable: a young photographer who covers the wars in Cambodia and Vietnam in the early '70s for fame, fortune and the adrenaline rush of being on the front lines, while learning the local languages and becoming intimately acquainted with the local people.

In bringing this character to life Asano shows a side of his personality not often apparent in his other roles. His Taizo (none of his non-Japanese acquaintances, it seems, can get their tongues around "Ichinose") is an easygoing type with a sunny smile and knack for making friends, from a veteran Canadian war photographer named Tim Hill (Robert Slater) to his adopted Cambodian "family," whose matriarch, Madame Lok, runs a restaurant where Taizo eats and, upstairs, sleeps.

But Taizo is intensely, almost suicidally, determined to be the best at what he does. When the bullets start flying he starts snapping madly away, blithely unaware that one of those bullets may have his name on it. When he hears he can get as much as $25,000 for closeup photos of Angkor Wat (a fabulous sum then for a struggling freelancer) he vows to go there, even though he is risking near certain death if he is caught by the Khmer Rouge, who control the territory around the temple complex.

Despite the warnings of the combat-savvy Tim ("I survived here because I'm a coward"), Taizo perseveres, risking his neck daily for a photo credit here, a $10 bill there. He also learns the realities of war when a bomb explodes near the restaurant, killing one of the boys of his "family" and deafening another. For once, he can't click his shutter. Then, when he is caught sneaking through to enemy lines and taking shots of Angkor Wat, the authorities deport him as a "spy."

Undeterred, he goes to Vietnam, where he reunites with Tim and meets Le Phan (Vo Song Huong), a waitress in Tim's favorite cafe who is a vision of traditional Vietnamese beauty. Then Tim is killed in combat and Taizo discovers that Le Phan was in love with his friend -- and that he is falling in love with her.

After a brief trip to Japan to attend his sister's wedding, he returns to Vietnam where a Mainichi Shinbun journalist makes him an offer he cannot refuse: Together they will sneak across the border to contact the Khmer Rouge. Seeing this as a last chance to photograph Ankgor Wat, Taizo agrees, while knowing that the chances of coming back alive are slim.

Director Sho Igarashi's credits include the 1992 Vietnamese refugee drama "Nanmin Road (Refugees Shoot Japan)" and the excellent 1996 documentary "Sawada" about Kyoichi Sawada, another Japanese war photographer who made his reputation and met his end in Southeast Asia. He is not a parachutist, but someone with a deep, personal understanding of the culture and recent tragic history of Cambodia and Vietnam. More than almost any other Japanese filmmaker, he is qualified to tell Taizo's story.

As a storyteller, however, he is prone to conventional melodrama. The scenes of Taizo's parents back home worrying about their son's safety, while rejoicing in his triumphs, are straight out of a TV soap. (Igarashi was a TV drama director earlier in his career.)

Back in Southeast Asia, Igarashi is on surer ground, filming scenes of war with fidelity and impact. Also, despite a tin ear for his English-language dialogue scenes (a failing he shares with all but a few Japanese directors), he films his Cambodian and Vietnamese characters not just as colorful foils for his Japanese hero, but as fellow human beings. Idealized types, perhaps, but still bearing a more than passing resemblance to the real thing.

It is, however, Asano's performance that makes the film worth seeing. Like Robert Mitchum, Asano sleepwalks through some of his films, with those heavy lids of his at half-mast, but he is also a natural who can effortlessly steal a scene with a smile that radiates, a glare that intimidates or simply a sudden gesture of catlike grace.

In "Jirai" there are far more smiles than glares, but there is also a new intensity, a new pathos. In Taizo Ichinose, Asano has created a hero whose combination of vulnerability and tenacity is refreshing and even touching in these don't-care, don't-try times.

See "Jirai o Fundara Sayonara" -- and feel better about being a Boomer.

"Jirai o Fundara Sayonara" is playing at Cine La Sept in Ginza.


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