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Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2001


A peep inside the otaku cocoon

Writing about Japanese films in English, I am usually flying below the radar of the local industry -- I can skewer a director's latest triumph on this page and meet him laterat a party secure in the knowledge that he has not the foggiest idea of what I've said about his movie. Once in a while, though, I do catch it.

One memorable evening the producer of Katsuhito Ishii's feature debut, "Samehada Otoko to Momojiri Onna (Sharkskin Man and Peach Hip Girl)," called me to cuss me out, in English yet, for my review, in which I described the film as "less an eiga (movie) than an eiga gokko (movie game)" and compared Ishii unfavorably to Quentin Tarantino, whom he obviously worshipped (and who, incidentally, raved about "Sharkskin" to its director after seeing it at the Hawaii Film Festival).

It was an interesting experience, hearing the f-word 20 times in five minutes from an urbane, sophisticated Japanese man fluent in English, though in the heat of the moment his favorite insult began to sound a katakana rendering of "far king." Oh well, I'm sure I couldn't do any better with "kono yaro."

Now Ishii's second film, "Party 7," is on the screens, and I'm afraid that the wrath of my producer friend, who is listed in the credits, is going to descend on me again.

Nearly everything I said about the first film applies to the new one, a comedy about a pair of peeping Toms who spy on a pompadoured punk and his tarty ex-girlfriend, with unexpected consequences for both sides. Ishii, an in-demand TV commercial and music video director, brings the technique and sensibility of his day job to his films.

The technique involves digital games with film speed reminiscent of the Keystone Cops (i.e., fast=funny), while the sensibility is heavily influenced by manga and anime (the opening credits are animated in a style that might be described as Rupin III meets Ralph Bakshi) and the work of not only Tarantino but Luc Besson (the colorful, cartoony costume designs, in particular, seem to have been lifted from "The Fifth Element").

The resulting film is overhyper and overproduced. What might have looked fresh and funny in a three-minute vid clip becomes grating after 104 minutes. "Party 7" doesn't become unbearable, though, because Ishii wants to entertain, not merely show off, while having a few original ideas of how to go about it. Also, he is able, in the manner of the better mangaka (cartoonists), to give his two-dimensional creations a hint of a third, while refusing to condescend to them (have fun with them, yes, condescend to them, no).

It's a film, I think, that a Japanese pop culture otaku like Tarantino would like -- it comes from far enough inside that culture to be credible, while comically paced and structured to be accessible to anyone, including American mall moviegoers whose only idea of anime comes from the latest Pokemon.

The protagonist is gangster Miki (Masatoshi Nagase), who decides to ditch his career as a petty hoodlum and rip off his boss for 200 million yen. On the recommendation of an eccentric but understanding travel agent, he ends up at the Hotel New Mexico, which is appropriately rundown and out of the way. His ideal hideout, however, is managed by a middle-aged Peeping Tom (Yoshio Harada) who has not only designed and built a special "peeping room" that gives him intimate access to all his guests, but assumed a special peeping identity as Captain Banana, complete with a yellow superhero costume and ovoid mask that makes him look like a lascivious salamander.

He is joined in this lair by Okita (Tadanobu Asano), the nerdy, puffy-faced son of a former peeping companion, who is a peeper himself, complete with tissue box. Though at first taken aback by Captain Banana's act, Okita soon realizes that he has met a man after his own heart -- and together they sit down to watch, through a one-way mirror, the show in Miki's room.

It is lively enough, this show, though hardly sexy. Miki is visited by the leggy, luscious Kana (Akemi Kobayashi), an ex-girlfriend, who wants to collect money he owes her, even though she is about to marry a wealthy man, one Todohira (Yoshinori Okada). Miki, understandably, objects, even more vociferously when Todohira himself appears and reveals himself as runty, combative and suspiciously unaffluent-looking.

Miki's quarrel with his new rival soon pales into insignificance when the gruffly macho Sonoda (Keisuke Horibe), an aniki ("elder brother") from the gang, swaggers into the room and announces he has come to kill Miki and recover the money. Meanwhile, a gang wakagashira (lieutenant) with an Afro hairdo and a hair-trigger temper is on his way to check up on Sonoda and become the seventh member of this party from hell.

The film's gangsters are all cartoons, though Masatoshi Nagase injects his with a low-life Lothario appeal reminiscent of his teenage Elvis fan in Jim Jarmusch's "Mystery Train." More convincing, and funnier, are the pair of peepers, who pass the time between incidents in Miki's room by comparing their "10 best peeps" and giving each other high fives.

This kind of naughty, vicarious otaku fun finds its parallel in Ishii's own approach to filmmaking. Does he has a life, one wonders, outside the screening room and studio? Given the standing-room-only crowds at Cine Saison in Shibuya and elsewhere, the mass audience answer would seem to be, who cares? But if he wants to have a career, instead of a vogue, perhaps he should think of getting some fresh air. It's a big world out there -- and far wilder than anything in "Party 7."

"Party 7" is playing at Cine Saison Shibuya.

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