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Tuesday, Aug. 15, 2000

'SHISHA'/'KAMEN'

Low marks for the class of '00


Americans are inclined to wax rhapsodic about summer, rattling on about endless childhood days by the pool and lazy afternoons at the ball park. Japanese are more inclined to ignore summer until the rainy season ends and, when the sun finally breaks through the drizzle, send everyone postcards asking them to take care of their health during "the remaining hot days." Also, for many Japanese adults the good times of summer boil down to a five-day holiday, which includes a 70-km traffic jam or two.

Yet another cultural difference is that, while Americans usually like their summer movies to be thrill rides, this season's Splash Mountain being "The Perfect Storm," Japanese prefer cinematic haunted houses, which help them beat the heat by sending refreshing chills down the spine.

The best at making those chills, if box-office numbers are any indication, is Masato Hara, the executive producer of the smash-hit "Ring" horror series, whose MacGuffin was a mysterious video tape that killed anyone who watched it. This summer Hara and his colleagues at Kadokawa Shoten are serving up a double bill of horror: "Shisha no Gakuensai (School Festival of the Dead)" and "Kamen Gakuen (Mask School)."

Both star popular teen idols and both target the same under-20 audience that made the three "Ring" films such a success, but this pair lacks their originality. They could have been made in 1990, 1980 or, with a few changes of costume and attitude, even earlier. They are, in fact, throwbacks to the idol movies of the 1970s and 1980s when cute teens, usually female, would star in films for much the same reason Elvis did -- because fans would pay to see them, acting skills be damned.

The hot idol in "Shisha no Gakuensai" is Kyoko Fukuda, she of the big eyes and dramatically arching eyebrows, who has appeared in countless TV dramas, ad campaigns and magazine photo spreads since winning a talent scout contest in 1996. She plays Machiko, a student at a tradition-encrusted private high school.

One of those traditions concerns a star-crossed couple who taught at the school eight decades ago. He was a German artist; she, a Japanese pianist. To express her love, which was strictly verboten according to the mores of the time, she played Debussy in the conservatory while he listened in the art museum. Their affair ended tragically, with him returning disconsolately to the Fatherland and her committing suicide.

Machiko, a feisty type who leads the school drama club, decides to put on a play written by the departed artist. It is, she believes, a last message to his lover -- and a key to the events leading up to her death. But as she and her club mates try to unravel the mysteries surrounding this ancient affair, they unwittingly stir up evil, murderous forces. One girl goes to meet a boy in the driving rain and is run over by a car. Another plays the famous piano and is killed by a falling light. Who or what is behind these deaths? Machiko is determined to find out. One suspect is the boy her friend was going to meet, a fiery-eyed transfer student. Another is her own father, who is the curator of the art museum -- and knows where all the school's bodies are buried.

Director Tetsuo Shinohara, a romantic drama specialist ("Tsuki to Kyabetsu," "Sentakuki wa Ore ni Makasero"), gives "Shisha" the right Gothic atmosphere and overwrought emotional tone, complete with the plaintive notes of "Claire de Lune" wafting in the background. But he can't do much with the manga-esque story, which has some ingenious twists, but whose ending is a juvenile absurdity. Worst of all is the wrong-headed decision to have Fukuda wear her hair in bangs, thus hiding those amazing eyebrows: the whole point of the movie for her millions of male fans.

The other film on the bill, "Kamen Gakuen," tries to be more contemporary. Instead of a mildewy Japanese cousin to Harry Potter's Hogwarts, the setting is an average Japanese high school. Instead of mooning over an antique love, its principals are engaged in the usual adolescent survival games. One comes up with an ingenious, if strange, counter to the bullies who make his life hell: He wears a mask to class and, emboldened by his new identity, is able to defy them. Soon others of his classmates are sporting masks that resemble the white face protectors worn by hockey goalies -- and serial killers in slasher movies.

Inevitably, this being Japan, the mask wearers become a clique and throw orgiastic parties at which everyone can freely express their individuality in perfect anonymity. Inevitably, one of the mask wearers turns up dead. And inevitably, the film's female idol star, Maya Kurosu, turns investigator.

With her big, glittery eyes, short, boyishly cut hair and sharply etched profile, Kurosu bears a passing resemblance to the pre-Bruce-Willis Demi Moore, but the film's real center is the mysterious mask maker played by male idol Tatsuya Fujiwara. A close-mouthed sort, he crafts the masks that fuel the fad -- and knows more than he is telling about why some of his customers turn up dead.

"Kamen" injects a creepy surrealism into some of its scenes, but undercuts it with the TV-variety-show clowning of the boy-detective type who serves as Kurosu's obnoxious sidekick. Meanwhile, a love interest of sorts develops between the two principals, but goes nowhere. Imagine Johnny Depp in one of his twisted outsider incarnations making it with a teenage Julie Andrews and you'll understand why. When they part, as they must, I half expected Kurosu to give him a brisk, no-nonsense handshake.

I thought the movie would work better as a Bollywood masala musical, in which all that is merely excessive would become exuberant (a big production number with hundreds of masked students gyrating to disco beats) and all that is merely idiotic would become good, cartoony fun. Better a tasty curry made with odd ingredients, in other words, than the overcooked shojo manga stew of "Kamen."

"Shisha no Gakuensai" and "Kamen Gakuen" are playing at Shibuya Toei and other theaters.


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