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Tuesday, Nov. 14, 2000


When fiction is stranger than truth

"The Twilight Zone" may have acquired a reputation as "The X Files" for the Baby Boomer generation, but most of its episodes were intellectual games of "what if" with a fantastic twist, rather than investigations of the paranormal. Special effects were less important than the ability to take imaginative leaps into a world in which time stops, or youth can be bought one year at a time. These wonders, however, inevitably came with a price. Be careful what you wish for, the show warned weekly, you might get it. An appropriate message for the Cold War era, when the march of science was seemingly leading us straight to a nuclear holocaust.

For the past 10 years the Fuji TV network has been broadcasting "Yo ni mo Kimyo na Monogatari (Tales of the Unusual)," a show that might be described as a Japanese take on "The Twilight Zone," with the emphasis more on scary campfire (or kotatsu) stories than mordant fables for the coming apocalypse. Now, to commemorate the show's first decade, Fuji has made a film featuring four episodes, each with a different director, and each on a different theme. Omnibus films are usually uneven affairs and this one is no exception. But the high point, Masayuki Suzuki's "Samurai Cellular," is high indeed -- the funniest half hour I have spent in a Japanese movie in years.

There is a unifying device: a group of strangers trapped in a train-station waiting room by a raging storm, who pass the time by listening to stories told by a strangely smiling man in a black suit and dark glasses -- the comedian Tamori. His stories are strange, even scary, and he directs each one to a different member of his audience, as though he could read their minds -- and delights in messing with them.

The first of his stories, Masayuki Ochiai's "One Snowy Night," is a modern take on an old kaidan (Japanese ghost story) standard. The survivors of a plane crash find themselves lost in the mountains, with a blizzard threatening and night falling. A young woman in their party, Mari (Asami Nakamura), is limping from an injured leg and drops to the ground, exhausted. Her friend Misa (Akiko Yada) tries to help her, but the others are only concerned about escaping from the storm. They dig a pit for Mari in the snow and tell her they will come back for her when they have found shelter. Soon after they stumble across a mountain hut, but nearly freezing to death themselves, they forget about poor Mari -- until she comes to remind them.

Horror specialist Ochiai, whose credits include "Paradise Eve" (1997) and "Saimin (Hypnosis)" (1999), hurries the setups and goes overboard with the ghoulishness, as though he were telling his story to impatient and easily impressed 10-year-olds. There is also little in his tale that hasn't been told many times before. He even works in a blatantly obvious reference to "The Blair Witch Project," which he makes look like a towering masterpiece by comparison. At the end, however, a mind-bending twist almost redeems the banality of what has gone before.

The second episode, Masayuki Suzuki's "Samurai Cellular," may have a hoary premise -- the 47 ronin story -- but riffs on it with hilarious originality. The legendary leader of the fabled 47, Oishi Kuranosuke (Kiichi Nakai) is revealed as a playboy more interested in futon gymnastics than in leading his clan to exact revenge against the shogunate official who disgraced and caused the death of their beloved lord.

One day he discovers a mysteriously glittering object -- a cell phone -- from which comes a voice asking, with a brisk politeness, if he would please confirm a few historical facts. Was Oishi really the hero the history books say he was -- or was he more reluctant than righteous? Oishi tries to fend the voice off with excuses and evasions, but it continues, in its bright, relentless way, to probe until he is forced to a decision -- will he save his skin or live up to his future reputation? Nakai plays Oishi as both amusingly clueless (he has no idea how to address this talking gadget) and contemporary. Despite his topknot and sword, he could be a salaryman trying to weasel his way out of a posting to Timbuktu.

The third episode, Mamoru Hoshi's "Chess," is more in the classic "Twilight Zone" vein. Shattered by a loss to a supercomputer, a young chess master (Shinji Takeda) retires from the sport, until a wealthy, eccentric chess fanatic (Renji Ishibashi) demands that he play one more match, for the highest possible stakes. Instead of pieces, the chess master finds himself moving real human beings, with fatal consequences.

Though film's conceit of chess as life and death itself is hardly new -- Bergman's "Seventh Seal" being the best-known cinematic example -- Hoshi tries to hard to dazzle with visual pyrotechnics and mystify with sudden shifts of perspective. His ending, however, is boringly reassuring. Better Bergman's stoic acknowledgment that Death always has the better moves.

The last episode, Hisao Ogura's "The Marriage Simulator," begins as a blackly humorous take on a situation straight from a glittery-eyed trendy drama.

A young couple (Izumi Inamori and Takashi Kashiwabara) is deliriously in love and happily planning their wedding. As part of their super-deluxe, ultramodern wedding plan, they experience their future married life in a "wedding simulator" -- a virtual reality program input with every bit of data about them, from their blood types to their DNA. The ride is bumpier than they expected, however, and they decide to call the whole thing off, but the simulator is not quite through with them. Karma, they discover, is theirs to change. Not a bad message for a new life -- or way to end an unapologetically entertaining movie.

"Yo ni mo Kimyo na Monogatari" is playing at the Nichigeki Toko in Yurakucho and other theaters.

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