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Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2000

Another role for the hairy foreigner

I've watched hundreds of Japanese movies over the years, but few have featured anyone like me -- a middle-aged white guy who has spent long years here trying to learn the language and understand the culture, with mixed results. But then again I never expected to find my double on the screen. Japanese audiences prefer Japanese characters in Japanese films, for perfectly understandable reasons.

Even when foreigners appear in recent Japanese films, they tend to be Asian, again for reasons that make excellent box-office sense. It's easier for young local audiences to identify with Taiwanese star Takeshi Kaneshiro playing a half-Japanese, half-Taiwanese gangster than with a big-nosed Caucasian actor playing an English conversation teacher, even if his nihongo is ryucho (fluent).

Thus my surprise when I heard about "Ichigensan (The First Timers)," a debut feature by Isao Morimoto based on an award-winning novel by David Zoppetti whose hero is, like the novel's author, a long-time Swiss expat with a talent for languages and a deep knowledge of things Japanese. (For those who never turn on a television, Zoppetti has been a reporter for the TV Asahi "News Station" program since 1993.) At last, a positive role model in a Japanese movie for us white-bread types!

Also, the film is a truly international production. The director is a Japanese who emigrated to Australia in 1981, the star, Edward Atterton, lived in Japan for two years in the late 1980s, and the producer, Toshi Shioya, is a bilingual Japanese actor whose credits include "Blood Oath" and "Mr. Baseball." Even the Japanese-language theme song is sung by a Korean-American, Susie Kang.

The story "Ichigensan" tells, though, is among the oldest and most familiar in the long, troubled history of Japan's encounter with the West: a romance between a hairy (if handsome) barbarian and a Japanese beauty, played by Honami Suzuki. Also, instead of Shibuya, Roppongi or other trendy meeting places of East and West, the filmmakers have chosen the Kyoto of quiet temple rock gardens and quaint wooden houses: i.e., the traditional Japan imagined by millions of tourists, before they step off the airplane.

Morimoto has filmed this story with a deliberate pace and pictorial beauty reminiscent of Golden Era Japanese films. There are few indications that "Ichigensan" was made in 1999 or set in 1989, when the bubble era was at its height. Its international couple could have easily found each other in 1959 (or, with a change of costumes, 1899).

There is nothing wrong with this approach -- Jun Ichikawa has made several excellent films set in similar time warps -- but "Ichigensan" has a made-for-export feel, as though Morimoto and company were trying to film a cinematic equivalent of "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- i.e. a quality updating of outworn stereotypes for overseas audiences.

The hero, who never acquires a name (he is listed in the program simply as "boku" [me]), is a Swiss-born student of Japanese literature at a Kyoto university. Though dazzlingly articulate in nihongo (an "ano ne" or "ee to" never escapes his lips), he still experiences the frustrations that all gaijin, however insulated or assimilated, encounter in Japan: The waiter who gives him a knife and fork for his noodles, the drunken salaryman who insists on practicing his broken English, even after the hero has answered him in flawless Japanese. Vignettes like these may be cliches, but they ring true.

The story begins when the hero lands an unusual arubaito -- reading to a young blind woman named Kyoko (Suzuki) who lives in an exquisitely traditional Japanese house with her impeccably kimonoed mother (Yoshiko Nakata). His new student, it turns out, is sensitive, intelligent, gorgeous and even shares his tastes in classical Japanese literature. (He starts their first session with Mori Ogai, and never misses a kanji.) Love, inevitably, blooms.

There are difficulties. The hero undergoes the agonies of writing his senior thesis, while feeling the tug of home as communism collapses and all Europe celebrates. Also, being a proper Swiss scholar, he cannot casually take a roll on the tatami with his charming student. Seizing the initiative, Kyoko has him read her a lubricious novel, while she pillows her head on his knee and gazes up at him with liquid eyes. The dam bursts, and they become lovers.

Life moves inexorably on, though, and the real world begins to beckon to both of them. "Ichigensan" reveals itself as a contemporary movie when we see that forces driving the hero and Kyoko apart are not family or tradition, but careers.

Honami Suzuki plays Kyoko more convincingly and powerfully than one might have expected from this former TV "trendy drama" queen, while exuding the elusive sensuousness that drove so many bubble-era males to distraction.

British actor Edward Atterton credibly impersonates a dedicated-but-harried exchange student, but in the bridging the film's most important cultural gap -- between the hero and Kyoko -- he falls short.

With a beard, he is all too reminiscent of the younger Charlton Heston and, though Chuck did a terrific Moses, he was never a vibrant lover. In most of his scenes with Suzuki, Atterton looks as though he would rather be parting the Red Sea; even in the midst of a passionate embrace he is only engaged from the waist down. His flat, distracted performance gives an unpleasantly exploitative vibe to the film's central relationship.

"Boku" and Kyoko seem to be using each other to live out their erotic fantasies (or simply relieve their sexual frustrations), not express a love that transcends race, culture and disability. A film made to overcome stereotypes ends up reinforcing them.

"Ichigensan" at Cinema Square Tokyu from Jan. 29.

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