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Tuesday, April 4, 2000


A mystery that clouds men's minds

Movies, goes the cliche, are an international language. Though the world may speak in a babble of tongues, it is one in its love of Leo and Kate.

Well, yes and no. While admitting the appeal of "Titanic" in lands that have never seen ice, let alone an iceberg (and that its dialogue probably benefits from translation into Thai and Hindi), I am occasionally reminded that certain films and certain genres -- especially comedy -- don't ship well.

What Japanese audiences consider hilarious often leaves foreigners baffled. I was reminded of this act while watching "Keizoku (Beautiful Dreamer)," a film based on a highly rated TBS drama series that is the latest attempt to exploit the "Japanese horror" boom.

"Keizoku," however, also owes much to the dotabata (knock-about) style of comedy that is a perennial favorite here on television and in films. In dotabata anything goes -- the corny, the amateurish and the downright bizarre all go into the pot, while comic structure, timing and logic all go out the window. Forget craft -- just go far enough over the top, and audiences will follow along.

It also owes much to the popular mysteries in which plot complications pile up and, at the end, explanations drag on. Kon Ichikawa's series of films featuring a rumpled-but-astute Meiji-Era detective named Kindaichi were big hits in the latter half of the '70s. Ichikawa, a fan of Agatha Christie, would always feature a climatic speech in which Kindaichi would cleverly unravel every thread of the plot's Gordian knot. Dame Agatha clearly has a lot to answer for.

"Keizoku," however, unfolds in the present, beginning in the dimly lit basement office of the Metropolitan Police Office's Criminal Investigations Section One, which is charged with pursuing "pending" (keizoku) investigations -- i.e., cases that everyone else has given up on.

The section chief, Nonomura (Raita Ryu), is a horny old goat who is willing to give all of his lump-sum retirement allowance to his termagant of a wife so he can marry his loose-socked under-age sweetie (whose face is artfully hidden to protect her -- insert laugh here -- "privacy").

Nonomura's dreams of erotic bliss are shattered, however, when his superiors decide to replace him, 10 days before his retirement, with a woman half his age named Jun Shibata (Miki Nakatani), who may have a Todai degree and a genius IQ, but is a ditz and a klutz with no street smarts or fashion sense. As if this weren't insult enough, his superiors lower his retirement allowance -- and his wife won't accept a discount.

Nonomura and his problems suddenly drop off the screen, however, with the appearance of an ethereal young woman called Nanami Kirishima (Koyuki [no last name]). Nanami is anxious to solve the mystery surrounding the deaths of her mother and her father, a wealthy developer, who perished in a shipwreck 15 years ago.

At the time the police suspected that one or more of the seven survivors might have had a hand in it, but lacked proof -- and so put the cases in their "pending" file. Now Nanami has invited the survivors to a reunion on the tiny island she calls home and, conveniently, they have all accepted. Won't the police help her narrow the list of suspects and nail the perpetrator(s)? Shibata and Mayama (Atsuro Watabe), a tough, short-fused cop who has less than the highest respect for his new boss, agree to go along on this unconventional ride.

The suspects, among whom are a snarling yakuza, a fat, drunken architect and a crass middle-aged female tarento, are cardboard cut-outs that would fit comfortably into a Clue game, while Nanami's island, with its pseudo-Gothic castle and its various colorful legends, are lifted from the more lurid horror manga.

Naturally, the guests begin dying one by one in horrible ways. Nanami, who has a huge grudge against her parents' former shipmates, as well as a command of what seem to be supernatural powers, is obviously responsible.

Meanwhile, Nonomura receives a phone call from one Asakura (Masahiro Takagi), a former friend of Mayama's who raped his sister and then supposedly committed suicide. Now he is back -- and after Mayama and Jun for his own nefarious ends. Also, Asakura is no ordinary homicidal maniac: Like Nanami, he has the ability to cloud men's minds.

Director Yukihiko Tsutsumi, whose credits include the kiddie horror pic "Shinsei Toire no Hanako-san" and a special episode of the "Keizoku" TV series, latches onto every fashionable gimmick in this hodgepodge, from the stream-of-consciousness spookery of the "Ring" horror trilogy to the goofy black comedy of the "Shomuni" TV series.

"Keizoku" resembles the Kindaichi films: It has the puzzle plot with otherworldly elements, the disheveled detective, the gimmicky twists, the interminable explanations. But while Ichikawa was at least an accomplished craftsman with a real affection for his material, Tsutsumi veers opportunistically from style to style, mood to mood, while piling on the action, the complications and the dotabata idiocy. And yet the theaters are full, and the producers are no doubt contemplating a sequel.

Me? It's Japanese films like this that make me long to review "Mission to Mars."

"Keizoku" is playing at New Toho Cinema in Ginza and other theaters.

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