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Tuesday, March 7, 2000

A trance dance of love and death


Young directors were once encouraged to think of their careers as a steep, costly climb up the film stock ladder, from the 8 mm of their student movies to the 16 mm of their first arthouse films and finally to 35 mm, the stock that marked their arrival as full-fledged professionals. That ladder still exists and still has many climbers, but with the monster box-office success of "The Blair Witch Project," shot with the kind of video equipment that Dad uses to record Daughter's high school graduation, thousands of would-be Scorceses have received confirmation that there are other, less expensive and arduous ways to make their filmmaking dreams come true.

Thus the flood of digital movies made with little more than chutzpah and a credit card; thus the emergence of digital film festivals (Tokyo hosted its first last fall); and thus the concept of Movie Storm, a five-film project produced by Gaga Communications, Excellent Film and Bonobo. All five are scheduled to be shot with video cameras, reducing the cost of production to one-tenth that of the average Japanese commercial film. All five are on the theme of "Eros" and several feature directors who have won awards and box-office success.

The aim is less to confront conventions of mainstream cinema in the manner of the Dogma group, whose "vows of chastity" include the use of handheld cameras, natural light and "found" locations, than to fill distributor Gaga's line-up with salable product. Even so, if the second of this quintet, Shun Nakahara's "Shikai (The Dentist)" is any indication, the use of less cumbersome digital equipment and the lack of budgetary pressures has given Movie Storm directors the kind of freedom that produces interesting films, not just more video shelf space-fillers.

A graduate of the University of Tokyo, Nakahara began his career in the early '70s, grinding out soft porn for Nikkatsu, then graduated to straight films with the 1986 "Boku no Onna ni Te o Dasu na (Don't Touch My Woman)," a vehicle for idol star Kyoko Koizumi. In 1990 he swept local awards with "Sakura no Sono," a subtly sensuous, movingly lyrical, beautifully photographed film about the members of a girls school drama club. While injecting similar qualities into his subsequent films, Nakahara could not direct his way past the clotted comedy of "Lie, Lie, Lie" or the turgid melodramatics of "Coquille."

In "Shikai," however, he returns to his porno roots and produces a film that recalls the erotic power and humanism of his earlier work, while venturing farther out on the sexual and emotional edge. Think of the Nagisa Oshima erotic classic "Ai no Corrida (In the Empire of the Senses)" -- only with the roles reversed.

The dentist of the title is Tomoya Matsunaga (Ken'ichi Endo), who runs a thriving practice out of his house. Taller, darker and more handsome than the average tooth puller, with a piercing gaze and caressing rumble of a voice, Matsunaga would seem to be a dream catch -- and so he is in the eyes of his smoky-eyed young bride, Noriko (Amiko Kanaya), save for one problem -- Matsunaga has become impotent since the recent death of his loving tyrant of a mother.

Noriko tells a freelance writer friend named Ritsuko (Ayana Inoue) about this problem in graphic detail, complete with embarrassed giggles, for an article Ritsuko is doing on the "sexless couple" phenomenon. When Matsunaga hears the tape he explodes with rage, slapping a cowering Noriko to the floor. But instead of reacting in the usual way of battered wives in Japanese movies -- with tears of submissive contrition -- Noriko stares at her husband with an unsettling combination of silent reproach and steamy satisfaction.

The slapping continues, this time on Noriko's willing rump, as she screams with pain and joy. Matsunaga and Noriko end up making explosive, ecstatic love. Scratch one prescription for little blue pills -- this odd couple's real honeymoon is about to begin.

There is a large market for S&M fantasies in this country -- see all those video racks that look like photo manuals on ways to hog-tie the female form. Harder than devising knots not in the Boy Scout manual, however, is filming an S&M relationship frankly, without exploitative leers or PC frowns. Nakahara, a veteran observer of the erotic in all its variations, pulls off this trick with stylistic grace and narrative impact. (Too well, perhaps -- his bosses at Gaga would no doubt have preferred more leers.)

Going to a hot spring where Matsunaga's parents once honeymooned, Matsunaga and Noriko enjoy an S&M idyll. No longer content to cut panties with scissors or fondle nipples with knives, Matsunaga tries a different game -- pushing his wife's head under water and keeping it there, then panicking when she nearly drowns. Noriko emerges from this near-death experience ready for more.

What began as a game to keep Eros alive in a troubled marriage, now becomes a prolonged flirtation with Thanatos -- that Matsunaga becomes all too ready to consummate. A story that began with a thrill, finishes with a series of chills. Say good-bye to "Ai no Corrida" and say hello to "Psycho."

Working from a script by Shotaro Oikawa, Nakahara films this descent with a directorial gaze both unflinching and understanding. Also, together with cinematographer Satoru Maeda, he creates images that not only take the digital medium where most news cameramen could never follow, but plunge the audience into his characters' trance dance of love and death. Imagine a coffin with a live naked occupant, curled in a fetal position and hurling toward oblivion.

Veteran character actor Ken'ichi Endo, whose credits include films by Yoichi Sai and Takeshi Kitano's "Sono Otoko Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop)," portrays Matsunaga's transformation from man to monster without losing sight of the man in the monster, or forgetting to foreshadow the monster in the man.

But it is Amiko Kanaya as Noriko who gives the film its true charge, not only in her mask of a face, with its standing invitation to forbidden pleasures, but in her stance when she finally displays her body to the shocked eyes of her friend. Unrepentant and unashamed, she reveals her bruises and scars not as the proofs of her victimhood, but the testimony of her love.

"Shikai" is playing at Box Higashi Nakano as the late show.


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