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Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2000


On the road to self-realization

Kinema Junpo, Japan's oldest and most influential film magazine, recently published a list of the best Japanese directors of all time, selected by a panel of Japanese critics. The first five slots went to universally acknowledgedmasters: Akira Kurosawa, Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Keisuke Kinoshita and Mikio Naruse (though Kinoshita's reputation is higher here than abroad).

But the sixth slot, the highest for a living director, was given to Yoji Yamada, whose biggest international claim to fame is a Guinness Book entry for his Tora-san series, at 48 installments the longest ever for feature films. James Bond and Godzilla don't even begin to come close.

Foreign film critics and scholars tend to regard Yamada as a Japanese Frank Capra, whose films may celebrate the Common Man, but are formulaic and sentimental entertainments for the undiscriminating masses, not the cinematically sophisticated classes. Though he has his fans abroad, including the mayor of Vienna who invited Yamada to make one of his Tora-san films there, programmers of major film festivals and editors of scholarly film journals, who go into raptures over the first feature of the latest under-40 directorial phenomenon, generally regard Yamada's massive output with dismissal, if not outright disdain.

But while his films about the wandering peddler from Shibamata, who falls in love in every episode, but never gets the girl, may follow a formula, they bring to life a character who is to Japanese cinema what Dickens' Micawber is to English literature: a comic figure at once inimitably local and eternally universal. Tora-san is a Shy Guy for the ages.

In his nonseries entries as well, Yamada may unabashedly go for the big teary pay-off (which is what his audience is paying for) but he does by taking us, with an unobtrusive mastery, under society's surface, to the heart of his character's lives. There is an idealism in his portraits of Japan and the Japanese, but there is also an undeniable, if unfashionable, human truth.

Is he the greatest living Japanese director? Maybe not, but he is worth a closer look than he has been getting.

In his new film, "15-sai -- Gakko IV," the fourth entry in his series about unusual schools and students, Yamada takes as his hero a wanderer of a very different sort: a 15-year-old boy who is fed up with school and home and decides to hitch his way across the country to see the famed 7,200-year-old Jomon Tree on Yakushima, an island off the coast of southern Kyushu. The trip, as might be expected, is an excuse for Meaningful Experiences and Life Messages that propel the hero beyond self-absorbed teenage angst to, if not quite maturity, a new confidence and awareness.

Though Yamada's aim may be didactic (one imagines principals earnestly recommending the film at school assemblies) he creates a coming-of-age story that has a ring of lived reality. In his Daisuke I could see the shadow of my own pimpled self, thumbing across continents and finding, in brief encounters with strangers, the kind of education that the University of Michigan couldn't supply.

Daisuke (Yuta Kanai) begins the film as a composite from a news story about troubled teens. His parents, a typical workaholic salaryman (Renji Kobayashi) and fretful stay-at-home mom (Yoko Akino), cannot comprehend his reluctance, for the past six months, to go to school. What, they wonder, is going to become of him? Daisuke, meanwhile, can't see the point. One day, having had enough of the fatherly lectures and motherly pleading, he packs his knapsack and leaves his comfortable middle-class Tokyo home for the highway.

His first ride, however, is an old gasbag in a van who takes up where his father left off. Daisuke tells him what he tells his father: to blow it off.

Dumped at a highway rest stop, Daisuke finds his first two gurus, a pair of rough-hewn truckers who not only forego the usual adult hectoring, but treat him with more consideration and kindness than he has reason to expect. He helps one of them, the brawny, heavy-smoking Sasaki (played by "Hope no Otoko" Hidekazu Akai), unload his truck and discovers that he actually enjoys the hard, sweaty work.

Sasaki gives him a few thousand yen for his trouble and finds him a ride with another trucker, a tall, lean middle-aged woman (former Takarazuka star Rei Asami) who may look and talk tough, but has a motherly side. She offers to put him up for the night at her home, where she lives with her cute, perky teenage daughter and grossly obese and deeply withdrawn teenage son, who lives in a private world of old period dramas and jigsaw puzzles.

Daisuke, however, instantly finds this odd family to his liking. The trucker is the kind of straight-talking, nonjudgmental mother, and her son the nerdy, but smart and sensitive, older brother that he may have wanted, but never had.

Daisuke has other adventures before he reaches his goal, including a hike up the mountains of Yakushima with a cheery-but-sexy Older Woman (Seiko Takada) and a day in the ebbing life of a wild-at-heart war veteran (Tetsuro Tanba), with each giving him another push down the road to self-realization, much like Scrooge's nocturnal life review with the three ghosts.

Yamada is as upfront as Dickens was about his intentions, if not as satisfyingly clean in his execution. Though a change-of-heart socialist in the Dickens mode, Yamada resists the Dickensian tendency to caricaturize and demonize. His Daisuke may hit a few scary bumps along the road to enlightenment, but no Bill Sikesian terrors spring from behind a bush.

It's a bit too easy, this trip, but it is taking place in 21st-century Japan whose people, as Yamada never tires of reminding us, are still more likely to do strangers a favor than do them in.

This kind of assertion may not be popular now, especially among younger directors intent on showing us a Japan little different from its more chaotic Western role models, but it also happens to be largely true. Don't take my word for it -- the open road awaits.

"15-sai -- Gakko IV" is playing at Shinjuku Piccadilly 2 and other theaters.

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