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Tuesday, June 13, 2000


Mr. Midas Touch produces a mixed bag

On Oct. 13, 1999 a new late-night program started on Fuji TV starring Tsunku, a pop musician and producer whose acts include the red-hot idol group Morning Musume. Tsunku, however, did not intend to devote his "Tsunku Town" show to discovering yet more cutesy singing sensations. Instead, he announced that he had been given 100 million in cold, hard yen by an unnamed angel to produce creative projects. After a lengthy hashing out with his guests, he decided to make -- ta da! -- movies.

Over the next several weeks the show resembled an ongoing production meeting as Tsunku and company thrashed out the details, finally settling on a budget of 10 million yen, with story ideas to be solicited on the "Tsunku Town" Web site (www.tsunku-town.net) . By March the first "Tsunku Town" film, a drama about the group dating phenomenon called go con (literal translation: "mixed company") was in the theaters. Two more have since joined it: Kaze Shindo's "Love/ Juice" and Shugo Fujii's "Ikijigoku (Living Hell)."

On the basis of these two films -- I have not yet seen "Go Con" -- I would say that "Tsunku Town" is batting .300: Shindo's is an impressive, if slow-footed, debut, while Fujii's is a risible over-the-top shocker that may find second life as a campy Midnight Madness favorite. "Love/Juice" is billed as the story of an unusual friendship between two women: one lesbian and the other supposedly straight (or as the flier blurb puts in gairaigo, "normal"). But short-haired, fiery-eyed Chinatsu (Chika Fujimura) and pouty-lipped, sultry-looking Kyoko (Mika Okuno) not only live together in a ramshackle little red house, but club together, sleep together and share every intimacy together. Kyoko, in other words, is "normal" if one accepts Gore Vidal's theory that only homosexual acts, not homosexuality, exists.

Chinatsu and Kyoko begin the film in a giddy, carefree romantic dream, in which even a trip to the supermarket becomes a delightful romp. This kind of thing is fine in small doses -- I was reminded of Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Godard playing house in "Modern Times" -- but first-time director Shindo gives us too much of Eden, until we begin to understand Kyoko's growing restiveness. While Chinatsu is snapping picture after lovingly framed picture of the object of her adoration, Kyoko is battling boredom and having thoughts of . . . men, including the beefy bartender at their favorite club and the silent-but-dishy-looking manager of a local pet fish shop.

Chinatsu, ostensibly the dominant partner in this relationship, tries to force Kyoko to stop wandering -- even turning away the bartender when he shows up at their house with a smile and a six-pack -- but Kyoko rebels and, in doing so, exposes another side to her winsome childishness -- a hard core of selfishness. Kyoko's only love, we see, is the girl in the mirror; her only aim, to satisfy that girl's every whim, both the innocent and the cruel. She begins to probe her partner's weaknesses: "You've never had an orgasm, have you?" she asks Chinatsu one day in bed, with the merciless persistence of a 6-year-old.

Finding the power balance suddenly reversed, Chinatsu tries everything to restore Eden, including the desperate expedient of seducing the husky, hard-eyed manager of the hostess club where she and Kyoko work. But her brush with straight sexuality devolves into a hellish fiasco when the manager turns out to have all the finesse of a bear in rut. Finally, she abases herself before Kyoko, declaring her undying love -- with devastating results.

Shindo, the granddaughter of master director and scriptwriter Kaneto Shindo, demonstrates that talent does indeed run in families, with an explosive third act that redeems the longueurs of the first two. Also, though she builds to this climax with the kind of professional skill and cunning she may have learned at granddad's knee, there is nothing derivative or programmatic in her execution. Trained as a documentarian, she is sensitive to the ambiguous realities of her characters' unusual relationship -- and is willing to allow those realities to unfold, without pushing them into PC molds or box-office formulas.

Grabbing the box office, on the other hand, seems to be a big motivation behind Shugo Fuji's debut feature, "Ikijigoku (Living Hell)" -- a schlock horror fest that aspires toward Hitchcock but quickly degenerates into the Japanese equivalent of Roger Corman. Sophomorically bizarre -- think school festival obake yashiki (haunted house) with amateurish gore effects and over-miked screams -- the film is only fitfully scary. Instead, my primary reaction was that of several of my fellow sufferers -- giggles, chortles and guffaws, followed by slack-jawed stupor at the awfulness of it all. (I didn't notice, however, that many shared my desire -- unacted upon -- to walk out.)

In the opening scene, a family is brutally murdered, with the only survivors being a senile old woman and her mute, blank-faced, rail-thin granddaughter. Obviously, reason the detectives on the scene, these two zombies couldn't be responsible. But we know, having seen granny Chiyo (Yoshiko Shiraishi) wield a ball bat and granddaughter Yuki (Naoko Mori) gnaw the flesh of the family dog, that they are.

This pair finds refuge in a family of sympathetic, if quarreling, relatives. The father (Hitoshi Suwade), however, is about to go on a business trip and his eldest son (Kazuo Yashiro) and daughter (Rumi) are busy with their jobs. That leaves wheel-chair-bound Yasuhito (Hirohito Honda) alone with the eerily silent visitors. His forebodings of evil quickly come to pass when Chiyo and Yuki begin a systematic -- and increasingly silly -- program of torture.

Think of all the fun sadistic things you can do to a poor sod whose only defense is to open his big eyes wide and scream for help that, of course, never comes. Send him flying down a hill into heavy traffic? Feed him cockroaches for lunch? Use his chest for a dart board?

The possibilities, we see, are endless. Conveniently (too conveniently, it turns out) oniisan and oneesan are deaf and blind to the odd goings on at home. The plot wheels, in fact, would come to a grinding halt without the grease of stupidity -- including the lameness of the final explanation for the preceding shenanigans. The title "Ikijigoku" is an apt description of not only Yasuhito's situation, but the film itself.

"Love/Juice" and "Ikijigoku" are playing at Cinema Shimokitazawa, (03) 5452-1400.

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