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Tuesday, March 21, 2000

Keeping time with the rhythm of life

Minimalism is all the rage now in Japanese indie movies, which sounds right, doesn't it? (Though "rage" may not be the right word to describe the bleakly autumnal moods of many of the films themselves.) I mean, isn't traditional Japanese culture about doing more with less? Zen rock gardens and all that?

There would seem a natural transition from the sound of one hand clapping to the sound of the clapper snapping, to begin yet another scene that, though seemingly about nothing, quietly discloses the deeper meaning of it all. But just as traditional Japanese culture often lapses into mere formalism, Japanese cinematic minimalism often resorts to a well-worn bag of stylistic tricks. No close-ups, please, we're Japanese!

In his first feature, "Timeless Melody," Hiroshi Okuhara runs through the usual minimalist changes: long cuts, long shots, little camera movement (even of the hand-held variety), natural lighting, naturalistic acting, pared-down dialogue and painfully suppressed emotions. But just as a gifted jazz musician can make even the most played-to-death standard sound startlingly fresh (listen to Miles Davis in "Autumn Leaves"), Okuhara uses these techniques to create the look and texture of life's most significant, if not most obviously dramatic, moments.

Many Japanese directors cannot capture these moments with any freshness or accuracy because they want to emphasize and explain, which means reaching for the nearest cliche. (A declaration of love? Spin that camera 360 degrees!) Okuhara, on the other hand, builds to them with a delicate but assured touch for tempo and nuance. Nothing is left to chance, nothing is forced to fit a mold.

Despite the familiarity of his material (a quartet of disparate characters searching for meaning and facing important turning points), Okuhara makes it new, not with flashy editing or camerawork, but by keeping us ever so subtly off-balance, while steadily drawing us into his story. Like Yasujiro Ozu, he creates the illusion of naturalism through calculated, detailed artifice. Nothing much seems to be going on, but every gesture has its meaning, every cut, its logic.

True, "Timeless Melody" is a more diffuse film than "Tokyo Monogatari," but Okuhara is faithfully reflecting the mood of a society whose relationships are more provisional, whose emotional temperature is lower than that of Ozu's day. Rather than simply paint this new world, simplistically, as affectless and empty, Okuhara portrays its inhabitants as still capable of desire, longing and loss. Many Japanese films strain for pathos -- and end up with sentimentalism. "Timeless Melody" attains it unobtrusively, but confidently. Okuhara finds the sadness and beauty of life in a run-down pool hall.

The film is structured like a three-act play, with each act titled: "Introduction," "Scratch" (the pool term for accidentally hitting a cue ball into a pocket) and "Timeless Melody." Nonetheless, Okuhara, who also wrote the script, uses this structure less to shape his plot points than to give a musical form and rhythm to his slice-of-life scenes.

In his first act a long-haired piano tuner named Tamura (Taro Kondo) learns of his father's death from a letter posted by a stranger. Though the old man went missing in a boat accident when Tamura was a boy, he has lived on in his son's mind as an undefined, but inescapable presence.

After a drinking bout, Tamura decides to drive to Yokohama to attend to his father's remains, but the clerk at the rental-car office turns him away for being obviously inebriated. Then a fellow customer, a strangely coiled older man, offers him a ride. Tamura accepts -- and embarks on what may be the oddest, most important journey of his life.

In Act 2 the scene shifts to a funky Yokohama pool hall managed by Kawamoto (Takuji Aoyagi), a squat-faced, slow-speaking young man. When the hall is empty, as is often the case, Kawamoto practices the drums, piano or trumpet (he has dreams of making it as musician) or simply hangs out, waiting for something (he knows not what) to come along.

That something arrives in the form of Chikako (Mikako Ichikawa), a lanky, gorgeous college drop-out who is waitressing at a local coffee shop and spends her free time at the pool hall. She likes the retiring Kawamoto and his music, but she too is looking and not finding.

Yet another regular is Shinoda (Katsumi Shiba), a middle-aged man who makes a living hauling mysterious cargo around the harbor in a small boat. Like Kawamoto and Chikako, Shinoda regards the pool hall as a refuge. Unlike them, he is not searching for a new life so much as trying to escape an old one -- unsuccessfully, as we see when a lanky, smiling gangster appears at dockside and renews an acquaintance Shinoda would rather forget.

These characters may seem to have little in common other than their loneliness, but they form an unlikely trio, with Shinoda serving as a kind of father confessor figure to his younger friends. All three have secrets that they are unwilling to tell. Then circumstances force decisions -- and a strengthening bond of trust permits revelations.

The third act? Suffice it to say that Tamura arrives and, with his presence as a catalyst, the others discover a harmony, both within themselves and with each other, that allows them to find closure, and move on. The film's central relationship between Chikako, with her pouty cover-girl looks, and Kawamoto, who is not anyone's idea of a romantic lead, would seem to be commercially perverse (a director with an eye on the box office would have matched her with the hunky Tamura), but it also illustrates Okuhara's original approach to his theme. In a movie about the gulfs separating modern Japanese, Kawamoto must go the farthest to connect.

As played by Takuji Aoyagi, a first-time actor and veteran pop musician who also composed the film's spare but evocative score, Kawamoto displays a quiet dignity and determination that make his leap, when he finally takes it, all the more impressive. A happy ending? Not quite, but "Timeless Melody" remains a timely affirmation of the human spirit, in beauties, beasts and everyone in between.

"Timeless Melody" is playing at Euro Space in Shibuya.

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