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Tuesday, April 25, 2000


Everything but the kitchen sink

"Another Heaven" is a high concept movie with a difference. That concept -- "The Ring" meets "Odoru Daisosasen" -- seemed so sure-fire to producer Shinya Kawai that he not only targeted the film for a Golden Week release, but created a "media mix" package that includes a TV series, book, comic, video, CD, game and, inevitably, Web site.

Such packages are not rare in the Japanese movie business today -- witness the marketing machine that is Pokemon -- but Kawai has given his a few relatively new twists. One is to debut the TV series at almost the same time as the film, but with a different cast and story line.

Another is to launch a company, Another Heaven Film Partners, to handle rights to the media package of which "Another Heaven" is a part. The aim is to take some of the fear out of investing in Japanese films by sharing risks across a range of media platforms. Boring stuff? Perhaps, but most of the art of "Another Heaven" is in its deals.

This is not to suggest that director George Iida, a horror specialist whose credits include the smash hit "Night Head" film and TV drama, bungles his own script, which is based on his own book. He presents his scary scenario -- an evil force from the future wreaks deadly havoc in the present -- with slick competence and bursts of conviction. But the mixing of genres and styles -- seriocomic cop thriller and science-fiction horror, macho wisecracks about perps and vics and mysterioso ponderings on the nature of good and evil -- result in so many violations of mood that Iida ought to be brought up on charges -- or at least sentenced to a few seasons of directing a revival of "Taiyo ni Hoero."

I'm not saying that just to be snide. The film plays, in many of its scenes, like a homage to iconic cop shows from the '60s and '70s. First, there is the time-tested convention of the crusty short-haired senpai (senior) cop (Yoshio Harada), paired with the handsome long-haired younger kohai (junior) (Yosuke Eguchi, looking as though he went to Yusaku Matsuda's barber).

Second, there is the broad tube-ready humor, including the mass retching scene after the cops discover the first of many grotesquely mangled corpses, and color-coded characterizations, including Akira Emoto's as a sly old coroner who has obviously been watching too many Ken Shimura hen-na ojisan (dirty old man) skits.

But most of all there is Miwako Ichikawa, who looks, with her mod girl outfits, spacy sexy persona, big batting eyes and the lollipop stick between her pouty lips, like a cross between Sue "Lolita" Lyons and Goldie Hawn in an early "Laugh In" incarnation. But though retro to the core -- girls just don't slither like that anymore -- Ichikawa's go-with-the-flow performance is also the most appealing thing in this oddly dated, if occasionally creepy, pastiche.

The film begins with a murder whose brutality shocks even hardened homicide detectives. Given the evidence at hand, including bones cracked as though they were drumsticks, the perpetrator has to be a monster of tremendous size and strength. But the cops also lift the prints of an unknown woman and find proof, in the form of a bubbling pot of stew on the stove, that the killer was an accomplished cook, if one with an unnatural appetite.

Then another victim surfaces, murdered with the same gruesome modus operandi. The cops, including senior detective Kenichiro Hidaka (Harada) and his intense young partner, Manabu Hayase (Eguchi), are baffled. Then Manabu's girl of the moment -- the ditzy if decidedly sexy Asako (Ichikawa) -- tells him that the murderer must be a woman. (Her reason: All the dishes the murderer prepared for its victims are from recipes brides-to-be learn in cooking classes.) Manabu, who finds Ayako annoying, tells her she doesn't know what she's talking about.

But she does -- and doesn't.

The murders, it turns out, are being committed by a being who is not human -- or at least "human" as Manabu and the other cops understand the word. Whatever it is, it has the ability to invade the very souls of its hosts -- and the host it wants the most, for whatever twisted reason, is Manabu. From the hunter of a serial killer, Manabu becomes the hunted.

A popular TV drama actor who has done occasional film work, Yosuke Eguchi isn't required to do much more than serve as the obscure object of desire for not only Ayako, but also a smart, slinky doctor (Yasuko Matsuyuki) who treats him for injuries after a close encounter with the killer -- and takes more than a professional interest in his case -- and a feline young man named Kimura (Takashi Kashiwabara) who repays Manabu for saving him from the killer by trying to seduce him and then, when he is rejected, by trying to . . . but perhaps I shouldn't say.

Eguchi displays the stoicism expected of a macho hero in a Japanese film, who is supposed to put work and duty above any desire for hanky-panky. At the same time, he projects an androgyny that, though unthinkable for a previous generation of Japanese movie tough guys, gives the film most of whatever contemporary edge it possesses.

In one memorably charged scene, he even lets the Kimura character kiss him, instead of killing him with the gun he has jammed against Kimura's temple. With a supernatural power surging through his body, Kimura is admittedly a hard man to resist, but Eguchi's reaction somehow reminded me of Kevin Kline's when confronted with a similar clinch in "In and Out."

"Another Heaven" may be yet another attempt to cash in on the "Japanese horror" boom, but it also provides intriguing insights into sexual roles in modern Japan, as well as unexpected delights for nostalgia buffs. Targeted at teenagers, it may find itself with the kind of mixed audience that Kawai never expected. I can see it now: middle-aged Yujiro Ishihara fans next to drag queens next to grad students diligently noting all the incidents of "sexual transgression." Anybody care to pass the popcorn?

"Another Heaven" opens April 29 at Shinjuku Piccadilly 2 and other theaters.

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