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Tuesday, Dec. 28, 1999


Small ray of love shines into future

Kiyoshi Kurosawa is flying high as the new millennium approaches. Not long ago he was churning out horror and gang action titles for the video shelves (one six-part series, "Katte ni Shiyagare," had the memorable English title "Suit Yourself or Shoot Yourself"), but since the success of his 1997 horror thriller "Cure," Kurosawa become an internationally acclaimed auteur.

His films have been screened at Berlin, Cannes and other major film festivals, and, at last year's Toronto Film Festival, he was honored with a retrospective.

One reason for the sudden rise could be Kurosawa's ability to think outside the movie-industry box. "Cure" may have had standard thriller ingredients, including a creepy serial killer and a cop, played by Koji Yakusho, who discovers that his wife may be the killer's next target, but it tossed more than a few genre conventions overboard.

Kurosawa gave audiences goosebumps, not with splatter shots, with his killer's soft-but-insistent way of asking banal-but-fundamental questions -- Who am I? What am I doing here? -- as he crept quietly, inexorably inside his victims' heads.

Instead of yet another easy-to-parody (or self-parodying) horror flick, "Cure" was a disquieting existential parable whose victims seemingly died, not from gushing wounds, but from the insupportable absurdity of their lives.

In his latest film, a dark vision of the post-Y2K world titled "Oinaru Gen'ei (Barren Illusion)," Kurosawa has abandoned the safety net of genre altogether, while expressing his social and philosophical ideas in a minimalist style more reminiscent of Beckett than Hitchcock.

But while almost unbearably bleak in its vision of 21st-century Japan, "Oinaru Gen'ei" ends on an almost tender note of hope. (In a program note Kurosawa says the film is about "two people who are trying to live in the midst of an eternal love.")

Instead of the usual disappointed romantic of the West, who expresses displeasure with the world in thudding ironies, Kurosawa is a stoic who prefers direct, even blunt, statement, stripped of the chatter we use to disguise our true feelings and intentions.

One feels that, if he had his way, the film would be silent altogether, with the characters communicating only in glances or, in a few cases, blows. This approach is not free from tedium -- anyone expecting the usual sci-fi movie pleasures will be in for a long sit -- but its very contrariness has its own fascinations and its honesty, its own rewards.

Set in 2005, "Oinaru Gen'ei" tells of a young couple named Haru (Shinji Takeda) and Michi who are living a desultory existence in what looks to be a typical urban landscape after the apocalypse -- featureless, characterless and purged of the past. No quaint temples or funky noodle shops -- just anonymous concrete and stucco containers for work and private life.

Tellingly, Kurosawa does little to dress his sets for a futuristic look -- most of what we see on the screen is exactly what we see when we walk out of our 2-DK suburban flats at 2 in the afternoon.

But though this Japan may be familiar, Kurosawa has given the beings who inhabit it few of the attitudes and appurtenances that have come to characterize the younger generation -- the presumed inheritors of this brave new world -- in the media.

Instead of the logorrheic yak-yak of tarento on TV variety shows, everyone speaks in cryptic bursts, as though it had become against the law to string more than two sentences together. Instead of the bizarro street fashions of present-day Shibuya -- Barbie meets Tina Turner -- everyone dresses down to generic blandness. And instead of the rush-rush lifestyles people are presumably living today, the film's characters move mainly in slo-mo, as though their biological clocks have been set to slacker time. Kurosawa uses these devices to create an allegory of modern Japanese life that is as simple as a Passion Play, if hardly as elevating in intent.

Michi is a clerk in a post office who never sees her customers -- they push their parcels though a white curtain into her waiting hands. Haru hangs out while Michi, with the aid of nerdy producer, strings together dibs of guitar plucking and dabs of keyboard noodling into spacy ambient music. He then presents a demo tape to a jaded ad agency exec with a mid-'70s John Lennon look, who buys it with a shrug and a comment: "It's acceptable."

After drinking at a pub, Haru and the ad man happen upon three punks beating a salaryman.

When the punks zap their victim with a stun gun, the ad man makes a mild exclamation of surprise. The punks look in his direction and Haru scuttles off, leaving him in the lurch -- and so it goes.

Played to cool perfection by Shinji Takeda, Haru is yet another in a long series of alienated loners with an insolent, if intelligent, smirk on his face and ice water in his veins. Out of boredom, he and the ad man join the punks in their looting and pillaging. Out of annoyance, he clubs the ad man down.

Out of money, he volunteers to test a new anti-allergy drug for sufferers from the huge pollen spores that infest the air -- and barely blinks when the doctor tells him the drug may make him sterile. He seems, in short, to be the ultimate representative of Kurosawa's don't-connect, don't-care world.

Michi, played by newcomer Miako Tadano, is not quite of this world. She is shocked when a woman commits suicide in front of her eyes, seemingly driven around the bend by terminal ennui. She tries to escape her humdrum life by boarding a plane, but is turned back at the gate. She tries again by tagging after a group of drum-thumping soccer fanatics, but is beaten by a gang of black-clad punks -- and so it goes.

But she has Haru and Haru, surprisingly, wants her, though she spends half the film on the run from him.

True, there is not much of what anyone would call passion in this relationship, but there is a stubborn mutual affection that, in this new world, is about all anyone can expect. Love may be the film's most barren illusion, but it is, as Kurosawa reminds us, all we have.

"Oinaru Gen'ei" is playing at Euro Space in Shibuya.

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