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Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2000


Cinematic storm ends with light rain

"Ame Agaru," a period drama scripted by Akira Kurosawa, has some tough acts to follow, namely the 30 feature films that Kurosawa directed from "Sugata Sanshiro" in 1943 to "Madadayo" in 1993. The obvious question is whether this homage, made by former "Kurosawa family" members, with long-time Kurosawa assistant director Takashi Koizumi helming, meets the standards of a "Rashomon," "Ikiru" or "Shichinin no Samurai." The short answer is "no." As narratively unadorned as a folk tale, with an affirmative message as straightforward as its samurai hero is upright, the film will no doubt strike many who know and love Kurosawa's work as Kurosawa and water -- and I can't disagree.

Nonetheless, after seeing so many new films whose mental atmosphere is cold, cynical or downright psychotic, I found "Ame Agaru" a refreshingly warm, if retro, change. Perhaps, in writing this last script in his early 80s about a wandering ronin's search for redemption, Kurosawa was recalling, not only the triumphs of his earlier career, but the silent jidaigeki of his youth, whose sterling heroes and simple good-vs.-bad storylines gave pleasure to millions.

Also, in transferring this script to the screen, the staff and cast, including Kurosawa regular Akira Terao as the samurai, have channeled Kurosawa's spirit without being slavishly imitative of his methods. Instead of a dull memorial service, the film has the feeling of an affectionate farewell from the master himself.

Misawa Ihei (Terao) begins the film as a ronin without employment or destination. Unlike the wild, impetuous samurai of Kurosawa star Toshiro Mifune, Ihei is a gentle-spirited, mild-mannered type who would rather smile than glower, and make peace than war.

Unable to cross a river swollen by heavy rains, he and his wife Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazaki), a paragon of patience and loyalty, stop at an inn whose guests are poor but good-hearted folk. A prostitute (Mieko Harada) disturbs group harmony by raging over the disappearance of her meager portion of rice, but Ihei quickly restores it, treating everyone to a feast on his winnings from a street-corner sword fight. When Tayo berates him for breaking his promise to stop fighting for money, he sheepishly tells her that he could not bear to see the people in the inn quarreling -- so he drew his sword to buy them a meal.

This sensitive soul, however, is no mean warrior, as he proves the next day when, out on a walk, he stops a sword fight between two hot-headed young samurai, then quickly proceeds to disarm them when they attack him for interfering. His heroics are witnessed by several admiring samurai on horseback, including the local lord, Nagai Shigeaki (Shiro Mifune), who invites Ihei to his castle.

Receiving an invitation from one of Shigeaki's young retainers, Gonnojo (Hidetaka Yoshi-oka), Ihei visits the castle the next day. He charms the bluff, good-natured lord with tales of his wandering life and his training under the renowned swordsman Tsuji Gettan (Ta-tsuya Nakadai). Shigeaki is so charmed that he asks Ihei to become a teacher of swordsmanship to his retainers.

Overjoyed, Ihei tells Tayo the news, but remembering the previous times when her husband had similar chances and lost them, she is reluctant to celebrate. Then, several days later, Shigeaki invites Ihei to demonstrate his skills at the castle. Ihei goes, but though he beats all comers, he is no politician, and ends up enraging both the lord and a local fencing school, whose master wants his job. The rain may let up, but Ihei's troubles remain.

In playing Ihei, Terao avoids the inevitable comparisons to Mifune by approaching the role from the opposite direction. Whereas Mifune's samurai were often traditional tachiyaku ("manly warrior" types) for whom affairs of the heart were out of the question, Ihei is a New Age ideal: dedicated to his profession, while being sincerely devoted to his long-suffering wife. Terao, a pop-musician-turned-actor who appeared in Kurosawa's "Ran," "Yume" and "Madadayo," is not as comfortable with a sword as Kurosawa's previous generation of samurai (he had reportedly never handled one before taking the part) but he brings a deadpan panache to his fight scenes.

Also, he is not embarrassed about or contemptuous of the idea of heroism. Instead, in his own low-key way, he embraces it. While not dominating the screen like Mifune, he brings a quiet authority and likeability to his role. Given an impossible assignment -- reviving a vanished heroic type -- he does a better job than expected.

As Shigeaki, Shiro Mifune displays some of his father's talent for broad comedy, but his bombastic lord is more of an attitude than a true character. Even so, in his first encounter with Ihei, he looks every inch the medieval aristocrat, both confident and commanding as he loudly praises Ihei's swordsmanship while firmly reining in a high-spirited horse.

First-time director Koizumi has what must be the hardest assignment of the "Ame Agaru" staff: making a film worthy of the man Steven Spielberg called, rightly, "the pictorial Shakespeare of our time." Working with veterans of Kurosawa's staff, including cinematographer Shoji Ueda and photography consultant Takao Saito, he has created images, such as Ihei and Shigeaki's ferocious duel at the castle, that recall the mentor's work. All that is lacking is the tingle down the spine that separates genius from craftsmanship.

It's easy to dismiss "Ame Agaru" as sub-Kurosawa, a last faint hurrah from the period of the master's final decline, but I prefer to see it as one last message from his heart, a distillation of all he learned in nine decades of living and five decades of filmmaking. A commonplace message, perhaps, but a necessary one: Despite all evidence to the contrary, the essence of life is love, its highest expression, joy.

"Ame Agaru" opens Jan. 22 at Miyukiza in Hibiya and other theaters.

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