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Tuesday, May 30, 2000


Uncle Koji's unexpected education

Uncles don't usually get much screen-time in Japanese family dramas, for obvious reasons. "Family" in modern Japan has come more and more to mean Mom, Dad and the kids, period. Uncles and everyone else outside this charmed circle have become shadowy presences that only appear in the flesh on holidays, if at all.

This is unfortunate. For boys, especially (if not exclusively), uncles can offer a welcome escape from the suffocating nuclear family embrace, as well as alternative insights into the scarifying world of manhood. My great uncle Al, a tool designer who was born in the second administration of Grover Cleveland, may have applied the sole of his slipper to my tender backside on more than one occasion, but he also poured me my first beer, taught me my first four-letter word and showed me how to face the indignities of old age with true German scorn. For all this and more, I am eternally grateful.

The hero of Yoichi Higashi's "Boku no, Ojisan (The Crossing)" would probably not, as the film begins, define himself as an uncle at all. A 29-year-old graphic designer for a small ad agency, Koji Kawaguchi (Michitaka Tsutsui) is living the unfettered life of a Tokyo single and has cut all but the most tenuous connections with his Kumamoto roots. Then he gets a phone call from his older brother Shoichi (Yoichiro Aoi) that changes everything: Their father, says Shoichi, has died and his 14-year-old son Tatsuya (Takahito Hosoyamada) has been arrested for trying to rob a post office.

As if this weren't enough, Koji is having trouble on the job and in his private life. A bucho (department manager) for an important client trashes his work and a longtime girlfriend, Rin (Miho Tsumiki), is getting ready to leave him. As might be expected, he is hardly bubbling over with avuncular goodwill when he arrives in Kumamoto. (In a burst of irritation that is one of the film's high points, he takes the cell phone of a kogyaru who is babbling next to him on a bus and chucks it out the window.)

The death of his father moves him but little -- the old man and he had never been that close. The fate of Tatsuya is another matter, however. Though he hasn't seen the boy in years, he feels sympathy for his plight -- Koji raised his own share of hell in his youth and thinks he understands why Tatsuya has a wild hair as well.

But he doesn't. The boy, who had never been in serious trouble before, is vague about his motives and resists Koji's efforts to connect. He belongs, we see, to a different generation, for whom sudden outbursts of rage seem to come out of nowhere, like summer lightning storms.

Though Tatsuya's smooth, angelic face gives little sign of what is going on inside, he is still only a kid looking for an identity, and not finding it in the adults around him.

The film tells the story of his search and the ways those adults try to help (as well the ways several of his no-account contemporaries try to hinder). Tatsuya, it turns out, wants what generations of adolescents before him have wanted -- a chance to prove himself, even if it means stroking for dear life across uncharted waters.

In drawing closer to his nephew, Koji also begins to sort out his own issues and decide what is important. Like Tatsuya, he is steeling himself for a plunge into the unknown. Will he quit his job? Marry Rin? Or none of the above?

In writing, filming and editing "Boku no, Ojisan," which was selected for the competition section at this year's Berlin Film Festival, Yoichi Higashi avoids obvious answers. A director since 1963, he is squarely in the high humanist tradition of Japanese cinema, which places more emphasis on honesty of emotion than tidy narrative lines.

But unlike many directors of his generation, Higashi does not go for the big melodramatic payoff: "Boku" remains resolutely dry-eyed to the end. Also, he freely violates the conventions of mainstream realism and injects his otherwise straightforward narrative with surreal touches.

Thus the dreamlike scenes of Tatsuya swimming desperately across a frigid stream and nearly drowning. Thus the wild-haired homeless man (Ryudo Uzaki) who watches invisible eagles soar in broad daylight and, at night, transforms into a mysterious masked shaman who communes with the spirits of the forest.

As in his previous award-winning film "E no Naka no Boku no Mura (Village of Dreams)," Higashi is hearkening back to a mythopoeic past in which the Japanese felt not only a deep, spiritual connection with their land and their native gods but with each other. He is aware, however, that, as the masked man tells Koji, "the gods are also angry" -- i.e., that the links between them and humanity have been broken and may not be easily repaired.

His approach in "Boku," however, is more intellectualized than in "E no Naka," which was set in a remote section of Shikoku in the early postwar period and whose magic realism felt integral to the characters and their lives. Though he rejects the geriatric pleasures of editorializing on the sins of the younger generation, Higashi seems one step removed from the kids who run butterfly knives through strangers in fits of pique. Newcomer Takahito Hosoyamada gives a credibly sullen performance as Tatsuya, but comes across as a bit too generic, a bit too 1999, to truly connect with his peers.

Be that as it may, Higashi is onto something about the nature of Japan in the new millennium, whose children have become, in the eyes of their worried elders, so terribly strange. He also makes that Japan more comprehensible to us outlanders -- even though nearly everyone in the film speaks in Kumamoto dialect, which is to standard Japanese what the Scottish of Robert Burns is to BBC English. A hint -- buy the program and scan the scenario before the lights go down.


"Boku no, Ojisan" is playing at Ginza Cine Pathos and Box Higashi-Nakano.

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