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Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2000


Return of a half-forgotten dream

The graying of Japanese society is one of those issues that, like the building of the second runway at Narita Airport, drag on for decades and end by boring everyone to death. A Boomer myself and thus a member of the guilty demographic that will bankrupt the country if we live long enough, I sometimes wish we over-forties could all, like the characters in "Star Trek," beam ourselves to another planet where we would never again have to read another editorial with "graying" in the title.

Japanese filmmakers have also embraced this issue with enthusiasm, though the results are often less incisive than bathetic -- or simply depressing. Watching recent Japanese films on the subject, it's easy to get the impression that an inevitable corollary of gray hair is a galloping case of Alzheimer's.

Isshin Inudo's "Kinpatsu no Sogen (Across the Golden Prairie)" may feature a lonely 80-year-old codger with a heart problem, but is not another earnest essay on what a drag it is getting old. Instead this film, based on a manga by Yuko Oshima, is a freshly conceived, imaginatively filmed fantasy on the persistence of the spirit and the mysteries of love.

It has few markers of the usual Japanese romantic drama: no bubbly J-Pop score percolating away through scene after scene, no soulful conversations on school or office rooftops, no tearful roadside separation scenes with headlights winking in the background like fireflies.

Nonetheless, "Kinpatsu" is a terrific dating film. Men with a terror of commitment would be wise to take their significant others to a screening of "MI:2" instead, but fiftysomething alpha males who are contemplating a torrid May-December affair should key it into their Palm Pilots, with "call Keiko" followed by three exclamation points.

The aforementioned old man is Ayumi Nippori, who lives in solitary splendor in a decaying mansion (meaning "big house," not "tiny flat"), where he has spent most of his life, coexisting with a chronic heart condition that could have carried him off at any moment, but for some reason never did. One day, something snaps and he wakes convinced that he is 20 again. But though his mind may have erased the past 60 years, his body remembers every minute of them.

At this moment, when our modern-day Urashima Taro is padding about his fresh new world in a daze of delight and confusion, a new "home helper" (Janglish for hired care-giver) walks up to his door and utterly changes his life. Only 18 and dewily innocent, the appropriately named Narisu Kodai (Narisu, "Old Times," played by Chizuru Ikewaki) reminds him of a teenage girl he admired from afar more than six decades ago, but never forgot. When she tells him she will be coming every day to minister to his needs, he is ecstatic. A mildewed dream has come true.

While taking leave of grass-is-green realism (Nippori is played by the 24-year-old Yusuke Iseya, who also starred as a young-looking ancient in Hirokazu Koreeda's "Wonderful Life") "Kinpatsu" does not portray Nippori's ideal as a flawless angel. Speaking with a childish lisp and displaying the fashion sense of a conservative six-grader (plaid skirts, clunky shoes, no makeup), Narisu is clueless in her private life, falling for a boy who treats her with all the consideration of a used oshibori.

Her worldly younger brother (Masatoshi Matsuo) and stylish girlfriend (Miako Tadano) regard her as a hopeless naf, as much in need of their protective care as Nippori is in need of hers. She is, however, not childish in her behavior, tasting the pleasures of both casual sex and strong drink and paying the usual prices.

In performing her duties for the old man, Narisu finds her metier, as well as a welcome relief from her personal turbulence. While never lapsing into familiarity -- she is ever the proper professional -- she begins to regard Nippori less as a client and more as a kindred spirit. She can see what others cannot: This tottering wreck, who cannot climb a flight of stairs without passing out, is still a fresh-faced youth at heart, alive to the everyday wonders of life and the preciousness of love.

She quickly grows closer to him (the film unfolds in the space of an eventful week) in ways that her agency, her brother and her friend would not approve. Can their blossoming love -- May and the last stroke before New Year's Eve -- ever find fulfillment? Or is it doomed, like Nippori's world view, to remain forever floating between dream and reality?

In filming this story, Inudo and cinematographer Taku Murakami do not shy from its romanticism: if anything they heighten it by wrapping Nippori in the whitish haze of fevered daydream, while never showing him in his true 80-year-old form.

To express his impressionistic take on reality, they make restrained, but effective, use of techniques more common to music videos than problem films about oldsters, including quavery hand-held-camera shots and quirky cutting rhythms.

Further underscoring the film's contemporaneity is the score by the Japanese rap trio Elephant Love, which refuses to conventionally explain or sentimentalize. Punchy without being obtrusive, clever without being precious, the score is one more indication that "Kinpatsu's" makers have their priorities straight. Growing old is not for the weak, but it is also, they remind us, not the death of the spirit.

Think young.

"Kinpatsu no Sogen" opens at Ginza Theater Cinema on Sept. 9.

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