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Tuesday, June 27, 2000


Working for the love of it

One of the first Japanese words foreigners learn here is ganbaru (grit it out), which once struck even this native of America's workaholic society as strange. Why, I used to wonder, were Japanese forever whipping themselves and others with "ganbaru" in its various forms? As members of a Buddhist culture, weren't they supposed to go with the flow instead of battling against it?

True, this "ganbaru spirit" built the world's second-largest economy, but it also said that life was something to sweat and struggle through, like a marathon, with death as the only finish line. Too depressing, what?

Koji Hagiuda's debut feature, "Rakuen (Paradise Sea)" would seem to embody this ganbaru spirit. Its central figure is an old shipwright (Nobuyoshi Tanigawa) on a small island south of Kyushu who is building a large wooden boat, even though no one has ordered it, even though he himself is no sailor. (He has, the film implies, never even left his island.)

For all his stubbornness, though, he never utters the word "ganbaru" and, as we come to see, represents the antithesis of the modern workaholic ethic. He builds, not from a sense of duty or for a paycheck, but because his work is as natural to him as breathing -- and is as easy to stop. He is an artist and a saint, which is to say divinely possessed, and a bit mad.

He attracts a disciple, a rugged-but-artistic type named Shinji (Shinji Arano) who has come to the island as the leader of a Lion Dance troupe, but leaves his two colleagues to live in the old man's house and help him realize his dream. His male Lion Dance partner and wistful-looking female assistant, who is secretly in love with him, wander cluelessly about the island in search of him.

Meanwhile, the old man's granddaughter (Reiko Matsuo), a sloe-eyed high school dropout who is working at her grandparents' grocery store and sorting out her own issues, tells Shinji bluntly that he can expect no pay for his work, that the old man's boat-building is little more than a hobby. Her resentment at Shinji's presence soon gives way to a grudging admiration, though -- and something more.

Shinji is less interested in romance than in observing, serving and admiring the old man as he practices his craft with a minimum of fuss, a maximum of artistry. A man of few words himself, who knows how to handle a hammer, Shinji would seem to be the ideal apprentice. But he is also an educated, New Age type who compares the old man's work to Noah's building of the Ark. Not conversant with biblical lore, the old man cryptically remarks that he hopes to "do that Noah one better."

The boat, we see, is a metaphor for traditional ways that are being reduced to cultural and economic irrelevancy in the tide of modernization. Hagiuda, a veteran of the independent film scene who worked as an assistant director on "Moe no Suzaku," Naomi Kawase's award-winning study of rural life in Nara Prefecture, takes a similarly soft-spoken, semi-documentary approach in exploring that metaphor. The old man is a real Kyushu carpenter and Hagiuda meticulously records his labors, while steadfastly resisting the temptation to transform him into a sentimental salt-of-the-earth hero -- a temptation that a more commercially minded director would have fervently embraced.

Instead, Hagiuda and producer Takenori Sento (the force behind "Moe no Suzaku" and many other internationally acclaimed Japanese films) make their dramatic points in the minimalist style that has become a hallmark of Japanese indie films, including dialogue that is more allusive than explanatory, long cuts that are more poetic than descriptive and a climax that rejects melodrama in favor of underplayed pathos.

In lesser hands, this style can degenerate into a formula every bit as cliched as that of the Tora-san films, and much of "Rakuen" has a familiar look, as though its makers were following a minimalist manual. Hagiuda has yet to free himself from the influence of his seniors, including Kawase, but he is an accomplished craftsman who tells his simple story with a lack of pretension and a greater-than-expected impact.

The main reason for that impact is Nobuyoshi Tanigawa, the Kumamoto-born carpenter who plays the old man. The key, I think, is that the film never forces Tanigawa to act -- his words and actions seem to spring directly from life. (Given the inability of most amateurs to handle more than a few lines without freezing into self-consciousness, this is no mean feat.)

The result is a purity and honesty of emotion that may have been shaped by Hagiuda's directorial hand, but is never faked. Through Tanigawa, we can glimpse an ethos that is fast disappearing in this bottom-line world, that unites man and nature, work and life in a way quintessentially Japanese, universally human.

For that glimpse alone, "Rakuen" is worth seeing -- we may not get many more before its particular paradise is lost forever.

"Rakuen" is playing at Eurospace in Shibuya.

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