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Tuesday, Aug. 8, 2000

The camera is a girl's best friend

Fiction and nonfiction films are commonly put in separate boxes, with the former considered entertainment and the latter, not. Documentary filmmakers here, as elsewhere, have long accepted this commercial sentence of doom andsought rationales for their work outside the mainstream standards of box-office success, often in leftist political movements and social causes.

With the decline of the Japanese radical left into factional infighting and political irrelevancy, young documentarians who might have once manned the cinematic barricades have shifted the focus of their work from the public to the personal. Several of the most talented, including Naomi Kawase, Nobuhiro Suwa and Hirokazu Koreeda, have made fiction films using not only documentary techniques, but the themes and motifs of their documentary work.

Meanwhile, in recent years fiction filmmakers such as Jun Ichikawa, Ryosuke Hashiguchi and Satoshi Isaka have injected a documentary flavor into their work, examples being Ichikawa's extended montage sequences of ordinary people doing ordinary things in "Byoin de Shinu to Iu Koto (Dying at the Hospital)" (1993), Hashiguchi's long climactic one-cut scene in "Hachigatsu no Binetsu (A Touch of Fever)" (1994), with its hand-held camera and improvisatory feel, and Isaka's decision to make "Focus" (1996), his expose of media corruption, as a faux documentary.

This blurring of the boundaries continues in Yutaka Tsuchiya's "Atarashii Kamisama (The New God)," a documentary that begins as a meditation on the search of the younger generation for meaning in the political and spiritual void of modern Japan, but becomes an unlikely relationship film, reminiscent of the work of Ken Loach and Woody Allen. You never thought you'd hear "Annie Hall"-like lines in a movie whose star is a fervent rightist? I didn't either -- until I saw "The New God."

Tsuchiya, who was born in 1966 and began making films in 1990, is serious about his theme of Gen-X angst, but his directorial stance differs significantly from that of the "committed" documentary filmmakers of the previous generation, who often took farmers and other salt-of-the-earth types for their subjects. Though a self-described lefty, who filmed two hourlong documentaries on the issue of the Emperor's war responsibility, Tsuchiya has focused "The New God" on two members of that seeming oxymoron, a rightist punk band.

The band's leader, Hidehito Ito, and its vocalist, Karin Amamiya, may look like boho rockers (with her heavy makeup, long blond hair and throaty, sexy voice, Amamiya is a Japanese cousin to Courtney Love), but both belong to a rightist fringe group and harangue the crowds at their live-house appearances with appeals to prewar patriotism. (Their reception from these crowds is not always the warmest, however.)

One might expect Tsuchiya, whose politics are diametrically opposed to those of his subjects, to demonize or satirize them. But while directly confronting Ito and Amamiya about their beliefs, he refuses to type them as villains or mock them as fools. Instead, his attitude is one of curiosity and even active sympathy.

What has made them embrace the politics and values of their grandparents, when the only "isms" embraced by most of their generation are materialism and careerism? Are they really filled with the old blind fervor to revive the glory and defend the honor of Dai-Nippon? Or are other motives at work?

The more interesting of this pair, he soon decides, is Amamiya, who had a troubled childhood (she was a target of classroom bullies and attempted suicide several times) but later found a measure of fulfillment and release in art. She made dolls that exuded, not the usual asexual cuteness, but an ethereal beauty and a strange loneliness.

Then she discovered something larger than what she described as her "empty self": romantic nationalism. In the sacrifices of the war generation, all those boys who went off to die for the Emperor and Empire, she saw something bigger-hearted than the Western-style individualism of the postwar period, which had devolved into mere narcissism. She began to worship a "new god."

Tsuchiya, also a questioner of the prevailing ethos and also looking for a way out of a personal impasse, detects a kindred spirit in this straight-talking young woman. He gives her a digital camera to record her every thought and mood, and sends her off to North Korea, to visit Red Army members who fled there after hijacking a JAL flight in 1975. The object is to engage, provoke and, not incidentally, get some interesting footage.

Amamiya comes through, but probably not the way Tsuchiya expected. Instead of lecturing the aging radicals on their dereliction of their patriotic duty, she drinks their beer, laughs at their jokes and finds them to be (surprise, surprise) all too human. She also perceives that her new friends and their North Korean hosts are, like her, searching for a "new god." She sympathizes with their quest, and begins questioning her own assumptions about the meaning of "left" and "right."

Thus begins a personal journey for Amamiya that continues to the end of the film (and, one suspects, beyond). It is also a revelation for Tsuchiya, who becomes attracted to Amamiya not only as a subject for his film, but also as a woman. His own "new god" is more personal than he had thought.

More than the earnest talk about the end of ideology and the search for meaning, I found the film's real message in Amamiya's absorption in the camera, as though it were a best friend who would vibrate sympathetically with her every change of mood, and give its undivided attention to her every word.

The real "new god" of her generation has but a single eye.

"Atarashii Kamisama (The New God)" is playing at Eurospace in Shibuya.

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