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Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2000


It's a wonderful life . . . kind of

In 1983 Yoshimitsu Morita made a mordantly funny film about an overbearing tutor, played by Yusaku Matsuda, who takes over a dysfunctional middle-class family. Called "Kazoku Game (The Family Game)," it changed the think- ing of a lot of people in the West about Japanese films. Goodbye Godzilla and grimacing samurai, hello satire as biting as anything by Monty Python (if not as loony).

In the years since, Morita has ranged between making romantic dramas for the masses, the most successful being the 1997 megahit "Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise)" and art films for the classes, the latest being the 1999 psychodrama "39."

Much of his recent work, however, has been on the dark and heavy side, as though, in his 50s, he were trying to reserve an alcove in the Japanese directorial pantheon for his own solemnly staring bust.

In writing the script for "Colorful," the new family drama based on a novel by Eto Mori and directed by Shun Nakahara, Morita returns to the themes of "Kazoku Game," but with a philosophizing and moralizing gloss that was largely absent in the previous film. Even so, there is nothing heavy-handed about Morita's treatment of his story, about a dead teenage boy who is allowed to return to earth by his elderly guardian angel. Instead, his approach is closer to that of Frank Capra in "It's a Wonderful Life" -- presenting his Life Lessons with a light touch that makes them go down easier, much easier. Yes, the film's various supernatural conceits get a bit gooey in places -- the avuncular angel, in particular, sets the teeth on edge (though he remains, thankfully, a disembodied presence) -- but the overall flavor is drier than the cinematic shu-kuriimu Morita made in the middle years of his career.

For that, I think, we have to thank Nakahara, who films the story's upheavals of lust and longing without condescending smirks or grating comic leers. Instead, he investigates his characters' sexuality with intelligence and sympathy, while maintaining a subtle balance of sensual warmth and wry humor. The director of "Sakura no Sono (The Cherry Orchard)," a 1990 film about a girls' high-school drama club made with a similar combination of eros and insight, Nakahara has had his ups and downs over the past decade, but in "Colorful" he returns to his best form.

The film's hero gets his return ticket to life in the form of one Makoto (Koki Tanaka), a teen-age suicide who has been pronounced dead when the hero enters his body and restores him to life, to the astonishment of his grieving parents and the faint disgust of his elder brother (Yuki Kageyama). The angel makes a proviso, however -- during his "home-stay" with his new family Makoto must recall the biggest mistake of his previous life or get another ticket, this time one-way, to the Bad Place.

Makoto, however, regards this task with something less than urgency. Instead, he spends most of his limited time adapting to his new skin -- and penetrating the masks of the people around him. Not in a mean or spiteful way -- the revived Makoto has a sunny, outgoing personality that the old one evidently lacked -- but with an unflagging persistence.

He is motivated by not only a native curiosity, but a strong sense of justice -- the boy whose body he now inhabits got dealt a wrong hand, he is convinced, and he wants to find out why.

Dad (Sakae Takita), for example, may look like the ultimate prize in the middle-class marriage sweepstakes -- a tall, handsome, former volleyball star who comes across as solid and dependable, if a bit on the dull side -- but a bribery scandal put the kibosh on his sports career and he now labors for a sympathetic friend's company in a dead-end job. His only salvation is coaching a mama-san (mothers') volleyball team, which allows him to relive, however faintly, his past glories.

Mom (Sawako Agawa), meanwhile, flits from class to class -- today eikaiwa, tomorrow, flamenco -- in an effort to give meaning to her otherwise boring existence (as well as to lock eyes with good-looking male sensei), while elder brother spices his cramming for college entrance exams by dressing up as a nurse -- and spewing venom at his younger brother.

As if all this familial tsoris weren't bad enough, Makoto discovers that his former self was a gloomy nerd whose return from his "bout with pneumonia" (the school's euphemism for his suicide attempt) is greeted with derision by most of his classmates.

But he finds a friend in a tall, gangling classmate who gets his kicks by spying on women at a local sports club with a pair of low-power binoculars (he can't afford better). Makoto also discovers a talent in art and an admirer in a fellow student-artist -- the equally geeky, but straight-talking Shoko (Kanako Magara). But his heart is stolen by the cute, sexy, but elusive Hiroka (Asuka Komayu), who turns out to have a secret life of her own.

All this is quite absorbing, but it gets Makoto no closer to finishing his assigned task and, as his guardian angel keeps reminding him, time is running out. How can the poor kid atone for a sin he can't remember?

As Makoto, diminutive newcomer Tanaka is enough the precocious 14-year-old to be credible (obnoxious at times, but credible), while projecting an otherworldly perspective that sets him apart from the odd squad that are his friends and family.

His film may not be another "It's a Wonderful Life" -- it's more diffuse in its storytelling and more obvious in its conclusion than the Capra classic -- but I enjoyed being in it nonetheless. It gives its hero what we all need -- a second chance. What a luxury, even when it comes with a carping angel attached.

"Colorful" is playing at Cine Libre in Ikebukuro.

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