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Tuesday, April 11, 2000


Lessons learned from the master

"What I really want to do is direct." This phrase, heard everywhere in Hollywood from interviews with A-list stars to conversations between waiters at Hamburger Inn, has become a joke -- to everyone but the legions of gottabe directors themselves. Among this crowd, scriptwriters have traditionally been among the most successful in making their directing dream a reality, as the careers of Preston Sturges, Billy Wilder, John Huston, Oliver Stone, John Sayles and a multitude of others prove.

In Japan, it is harder to segue from writing scripts to directing them. Most Japanese film directors working today either served the traditional assistant director apprenticeship or started with their current job title, but using bottom-of-the-line cameras (yesterday Super 8, today digital camera). Newcomers from outside the industry tend to be either tarento (Takeshi Kitano) or directors from the worlds of advertising, television or music (Jun Ichikawa, Shunji Iwai).

Toshiyuki Morioka, who is making his directorial debut with the yakuza melodrama "Kurayami no Requiem (Requiem of Darkness)," is the ink-stained exception to the general rule. Interestingly, like fellow scriptwriters-turned-directors Koki Mitani ("Radio no Jikan") and Akio Murahashi ("Shiawase ni Naro ne"), Morioka found inspiration for his first film in his first love, the stage. The script for "Kurayami" began in 1994 as a play for Morioka's Straydog theater company.

Also, much as Mitani and Murahashi did in their first films, Morioka shot "Kurayami" mainly on one set -- a real movie theater in Osaka -- while devoting far more screen time to dialogue than tracking shots. But unlike his two predecessors, who opted for clever laugh lines to compensate for their inexperience with camera placement, Morioka decided to make a movie movie -- a homage, in fact, to the films of that most cinematic of directors, Akira Kurosawa, particularly his 1948 masterpiece "Yoidore Tenshi (Drunken Angel)."

This, on the face of it, is an invitation to one's own critical hanging. Japanese filmmakers often talk of matching themselves against Kurosawa, but few would dare to stage scenes reminiscent of one of his early masterpieces, with a poster from the original hanging prominently in the background.

To pull off such a stunt one needs to either place tongue firmly in cheek or possess extraordinary directing chops and cojones. Morioka doesn't have the chops yet -- he directs with more crude forcefulness than finesse -- but he does have the cojones, in abundance, as well as an ability to bring his scuzzy characters and their violent world to gritty, gamy life.

Also, though his tongue is not completely in cheek (he is making a highly charged drama about life-and-death changes and choices, not a campy parody), Morioka does have a sense of humor about what he is doing, as well as sense enough not to imitate the Master shot for shot. Instead, he goes his own, at times ungainly, at times unsettling, at times explosively memorable way, much as he did in writing the scripts for such outstanding examples of modern yakuza noir as "Onibi (The Fire Within)" and "Shin Kanashiki Hitman (New Lonely Hitman)."

"Kurayami" begins with the kind of cute gag that would occur to a sophomore film student: The credits, in hand-lettered characters, appear on the actors, props and sets of the opening sequence -- a nurse checks on a patient and, after she goes down the elevator, he slips out the door.

The patient, Isao (Kazushige Aizawa), is a lone-wolf gangster with two big problems. One is the tuberculosis that is slowly killing him. The other is a stash of speed he has taken from his old gang, which is worth a fortune and may cost him his life. Also, the nurse (Kanako Oshima), it turns out, has more than a professional interest in her missing charge -- he is her brother.

The scene shifts to a rattle-trap movie theater where Kurosawa's "Yoidore Tenshi" is playing. A nerdy-looking salaryman (Shin Suzuki) buys a ticket from a wise-guy ticket seller (Yoshitaka Shioyama) -- and encounters him again upstairs as a ticket taker. The player of this comic double role happens to be the theater manager, a keeper of the classic film flame whose only assistant is his teenage daughter Mei (Mei Kurokawa). A feisty little movie fanatic in short-shorts, she tells the salaryman she wants to -- what else? -- direct.

He also encounters another patron, a big-haired young woman named Erika (Tomomi Kuribayashi) who works in a local fasshon herusu ("fashion health," though the customers are seeking neither fashion nor health, but rather sexual relief).

These budding relationships are rudely interrupted by a gang of angry yakuza who are looking for Isao -- and suspect that the manager, a former gangster himself, is hiding him. Unsatisfied by his denials, they ransack the place and start getting rough with Mei and Erika. When Mei calls to the salaryman for help, he at first cowers, but at last decides to play the peacemaker -- and gets thrashed for his trouble by the gang's slick-haired leader (Takashi Nawa). Then the gang leaves and Isao appears with the drugs -- and a fever dream of a dead lover (Mika Kawabata) waiting for him in the Great Beyond. This momentous night, we see, is still far from over.

The journey the main characters take in its course is much like that of Toshiro Mifune's dying gangster in "Yoidore Tenshi" -- toward self realization and, through selfless action, redemption. The salaryman finds the courage to confront his yakuza tormentor and, in being beaten to a bloody pulp, rediscovers the core of his being -- not the drudge in a suit, but the fervent movie lover. Isao, who has turned renegade for the sake of his sister, finishes where the salaryman left off -- and undergoes his own metamorphosis from heel to tragic hero.

Morioka leavens this Kurosawa-inspired high romanticism with interludes of wacky slapstick and down-and-dirty violence that are all his own and that lift "Kurayami" beyond tribute to eccentric individuality and, in key scenes, earthy originality. Kurosawa, after all, would have never filmed a big fight with pro wrestling moves, but Morioka does, and even makes the leg locks look cool. In a movie dedicated to the cinematic past, he shows us something new.

"Kurayami no Requiem" is playing at Nakano Musashino Hall.

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