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Tuesday, March 6, 2001

'KAZAHANA'

Kyon Kyon's leap in the dark


Pop idols are not only a Japanese phenomenon -- Britney Spears sells from Zurich to Zimbabwe -- but Japan produces more idols, of both sexes, than anywhere else in the world and has refined the idol aesthetic to an extreme. Japanese idols must be not only cute enough to make your teeth hurt, but everlastingly chipper and bright, with never a negative thought crossing their unfurrowed brows. Idols are permitted a bit of naughty sexuality -- the pouting of Ryoko Hirosue or the booty-shaking of Morning Musume -- but they are essentially wish projections of ideal youth.

Kyoko Koizumi, or Kyon Kyon as she is still universally known two decades after her debut, is among the most successful idols ever. When she was at her peak in the 1980s, it was impossible to open a newspaper or flip on a TV without seeing her perky 1,000-kilowatt smile.

Yet Koizumi's act was slyly subversive; as though she not only knew the idol gig was a sellout, but was letting us in on the joke. The trademark smile, which she varied about as much as a Mickey Mouse logo, expressed a complacency that bordered on contempt. "I'm giving you what you want," it seemed to say, "but that's all you're getting." The subtext was, "This is a silly way to make a living, isn't it? And I'm going to milk it for all its worth."

At the dangerous age of 34, Koizumi is now playing a washed-up, wised-up sex worker in Shinji Somai's "Kazahana," a role that is being described as a courageous leap in the dark. Kyon Kyon is changing her image! My feeling is -- what a brilliant piece of casting.

The film itself is another of Somai's auteur excursions into high-minded melodrama, but Koizumi has transformed it into "All About Eve." Her performance is all Koizumi and she steals every scene, just as she stole all those hundreds of now-forgotten TV music and variety shows. Only now the mask is off and the darkness has crept in (but not too far -- this, after all, is a Kyon Kyon movie).

Koizumi is Yuriko, a Tokyo pink-salon hostess who services anonymous men in dimly lit booths with a blowsy detachment, but also with a creeping exhaustion. One spring morning, she finds herself under the cherry trees with a hung-over salaryman who has totally forgotten who she is and what they did together the night before. This makes her angry, but not very -- the salaryman, Renji Sawaki (Tadanobu Asano), is scrumptious-looking and somehow different from her hundreds of other johns.

Sawaki also feels an attraction, but can't articulate it -- or much of anything else for that matter. An elite bureaucrat in the Education Ministry, he is on a perpetual bender and has long since quit caring about his career or his life, including his relationship with his ever-patient lover (Kumiko Aso). One night, drunker than usual, he shoplifts beer at a convenience store and ends up arrested and in the pages of the weeklies. His Monbusho bosses are not pleased.

Though Sawaki is seemingly content to drift into oblivi on, Yuriko has other plans. After five years in the big city, she wants to visit her hometown in Hokkaido, where her mother and her Buddhist priest stepfather are caring for her young daughter. Something about her night with Sawaki -- a glimpse into the abyss perhaps -- has stirred her into action; she buys a plane ticket and is about to board at Haneda, when she spies a familiar face: Sawaki, drunk again.

The scene shifts to the back roads of Hokkaido, where Sawaki is sullenly driving a depressed Yuriko to her destination in a pink rental car. What these two lost souls are really searching for, however, is not an exit ramp but a way out. Given the way they snap at each other, love would seem to be the obvious answer, but first Yuriko has to keep an appointment with easeful Death.

Somai has often dealt with the theme of spiritual transformation and rebirth in his 12 previous films, most notably in his 1983 masterpiece "Ohikkoshi (Moving)," but in "Kazahana" he is also exploring the way memory shapes our vision of the present, as well as our perception of time. Bravely, he violates the ironclad movie convention of presenting flashbacks in chronological order. Instead, he opts for the way the mind really orders memories: by emotional significance. This method results in a certain confusion -- Yuriko is seen dandling an infant before she becomes pregnant -- but it gives us a clearer view of the characters' interior landscapes.

Also, by frequently delving back into the past, Somai creates the illusion that Yuriko and Sawaki's journey is much longer and more epic than the three-day drive it is in reality. What he cannot hide, however, is that their problems and solutions are only a step away from soap opera and that, for much of the film, Sawaki is an unpleasant fellow to be around -- a bad drunk and a boor. Asano plays Sawaki with his usual combination of outer blandness and inner fire, but the fire comes too late.

He and the rest of the film's generally excellent cast, however, are little more than foils for Koizumi, whose performance is all of a piece. Like Bette Davis as Margot Channing in "All About Eve," she seems to be playing, not a role, but her life, with a heady frisson of self-advertisement and self-parody. At the end, she performs a strange, hypnotic dance of death in the snow. The idol brought to earth, the idol eternal.



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