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Tuesday, May 23, 2000


The samurai flick that got away

"Doraheita," the 74th film by the 84-year-old Kon Ichikawa, is one of those ideas that sounds terrific on paper, but becomes more problematic, if not impossible, in practice. In the case of this serio-comic samurai drama about a canny-but-fearless machi bugyo (an Edo Period sheriff) who cleans up a corrupt castle town, the various problems involved its production became so formidable that it spent three decades in development hell (or rather limbo) before finally going before the cameras in February of last year.

The idea: Four master directors pool their talents for a film, with the aim of revitalizing the struggling Japanese film industry. The idea man: Akira Kurosawa, who was recovering from the disaster of "Tora Tora Tora" -- the World War II epic from which he had been recently fired by Twentieth Century Fox. (Accounts vary -- Kurosawa insisted to the last that he resigned.)

He wanted to film "Machi Bugyo Nikki (Diary of a Town Magistrate)," a novel by long-time favorite Shugoro Yamamoto, but rather than do it himself, he asked three distinguished colleagues -- Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita -- to make it with him. They called themselves, romantically, the Four Musketeers (Yonki no Kai) and began with big dreams of recruiting talented unknown musketeers and producing a series of films.

But though the musketeers eventually came up with a script, which bore a family resemblance to Kurosawa's 1961 hit "Yojinbo," they went on to other projects and "Doraheita" went into a drawer -- until Ichikawa rescued it in 1998.

The resulting film is not, as one might expect, a Kurosawa tribute: "Doraheita" was already scheduled to start shooting when Kurosawa died in September 1998, and it is very much an Ichikawa film in look and pace. It is also, quite deliberately, a period piece -- even the credits look as though they have been recycled from a 1960s jidaigeki (period drama).

This was a reasonable choice on the part of Ichikawa and his veteran staff -- too much updating would have undermined the film's raison d'etre. On the other hand, by shooting "Doraheita" in 1998 much as he might have shot it in 1969, Ichikawa shows why dozens of scripts by other famous dead directors remain in drawers.

Films may not have sell-by dates, but they are of their time. If Ozu were alive today, he wouldn't be making Ozu movies -- the Japan and the Japanese film industry of "Tokyo Monogatari" no longer exist.

Samurai movies are somewhat different, but not entirely so -- though set in a pre-modern Japan, they are still influenced by the Zeitgeist outside the studio walls and the state of the art within. Ichikawa, one of the great stylists of Japanese films, has put his antique script on the screen with his characteristic visual sumptuousness and flair, but he can't hide all the yellow on the pages, or the lumpiness of the material itself. Four cooks may not have spoiled this particular broth -- the movie has its entertaining moments -- but they also failed to give it a strong, distinctive taste. "Doraheita" is not so much "Yojinbo" and water as "Yojinbo" and several types of thickeners, as though its four writers decided to combine their four scripts instead of blend their best elements.

The story could have been stamped from the mold of a million westerns. A new machi bugyo, Mochizuki Koheita (Koji Yakusho), arrives in a provincial town from Edo. Because he embodies the legal authority of the shogunate, the local clan officials and other power brokers defer to him, at least on the surface, but as the town metsuke (superintendent officers), Yasukawa Hanzo (Tsurutaro Kataoka) and Senba Gijuro (Ryudo Uzaki) make clear, trouble is brewing in River City in the form of smuggling, prostitution, gambling and murder-for-hire.

Three oyabun, (gang bosses), led by the white-haired, black-hearted Nadahachi (Bunta Sugawara), run these rackets, with the knowledge and acquiescence of the town authorities. Mochizuki, or Doraheita ("Scapegrace Heita"), as those who know him (and dislike him) call him, would seem to be worst possible choice for battling this corruption. Instead of dealing sternly with the offenders, he holes up in a cheap inn and, using the money the town fathers have provided him, proceeds to blow it on riotous living -- indulging all the vices he is supposed to suppress.

But Mochizuki is crazy like a fox. While gambling and wenching, he is becoming friends with the town's yakuza and geisha and learning where all the bodies are buried. When three young righteous samurai get wind of these disgraceful goings-on they decide to rid the town of this wastrel -- and learn that Mochizuki is as good with his sword as he is free with the treasury's koban (gold pieces). This man, they see, is more than meets the eye.

He is not, however, without weaknesses, one being his love for a feisty, sharp-tongued Edo geisha named Kosei (Yuko Asano) and his undying reluctance to commit. He took the bugyo job partly to escape her clutches, but she finds him and takes up exactly where she left off -- whereupon Mochizuki suddenly morphs from warrior to wimp. He is less at a loss, however, in pursuing his anti-corruption campaign, finally rousing the wrath of the gangs and moving the film toward its epic, one-against-all climax.

Appearing in his first samurai drama, Koji Yakusho acquits himself well enough as the jaded, sarcastic, but coolly competent Mochizuki. He gives the film whatever contemporary edge it possesses, but I couldn't help noticing that the part was written for Toshiro Mifune -- and wondering how much more physical dynamism and emotional voltage Kurosawa's favorite samurai might have brought to the film. Yakusho slices dozens of baddies with commendable panache, but his triumph is also one of skillful editing to disguise his middle-aged moves.

I also couldn't help wondering why a supposed action movie was so everlastingly talky and why the joke of the shrewish mistress seemed so stale. But then I wasn't the producer who greenlighted the script -- three decades too late.

"Doraheita" is playing at Nichigeki Toho in Yurakucho and other theaters.

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