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Wednesday, April 4, 2001

The genius boy in a bubble

My mother used to say that she could read me like a book. A compliment? At the age of 15, I didn't think so -- I didn't want anyone "reading" me, let alone dear old Mom. Worshipping at the altar of cool, I wanted to be an inscrutable, unflappable James Bond, not a hapless innocent walking down the pitiless hallways of an American high school with his every thought and feeling on display.

Kyoka Suzuki and Masanobu Ando in "Satorare"

The illusion of psychological nakedness is common enough among adolescents, who are still in the process of building their character armor and do not yet understand their fundamental isolation. They may be signaling, but few, including their mothers, are always going to be on the same frequency.

Katsuyuki Motohiro's "Satorare -- Tribute to a Sad Genius" gives us a hero in whom that illusion has become a reality. Everyone can read Ken'ichi Satomi (Masanobu Ando) like a book, whether they want to or not. He unwittingly broadcasts his innermost thoughts to the minds of those around him as though he were Eminem rapping through their Walkman headphones. Terrible to contemplate, no?

By way of compensation, he happens to have an IQ of 195 and a natural aptitude for medicine. After graduating No. 1 in his class at medical school and achieving the highest score on the national medical boards, he is serving a two-year residency at a government hospital in Oku Mino, his idyllic hometown in the mountains.

Satomi is a member of a tiny elite -- only seven in the entire country -- who share this unfortunate condition and genius. Called orareich translates roughly as "the understood"), they are considered national treasures and are protected from cradle (or, more accurately, diagnosis) to grave by specially appointed keepers, who work tirelessly to keep the satorare happy, productive -- and oblivious of their true relation to the world.

A clever premise but one that would probably not occur to Hollywood. In Japan, however, with its long tradition of maintaining its royals and other privileged types in blessed (or stupefying) isolation from reality, it feels like a natural. Being a mass audience entertainment, "Satorare" reassures us that the film's gentle-hearted Japanese are best of all possible folks for sharing one's deepest secrets with. It also wrings the requisite number of sighs and tears from its hero's profession, with its inherent potential for melodrama.

At the same time, it not only scores obvious laughs from its hero's embarrassing situation, but gets off smart, sharp digs at the Japanese bureaucratic and medical establishment.

Director Motohiro took a similar layered approach (using TV variety-show laughs to appeal to the masses and satiric jabs at our rulers for the classes) in his 1998 mega-hit "Odoru Daisosasen: The Movie (Bayside Shakedown)." In "Satorare" he is taking aim at the heart as well. But though he makes the audience reach for its hankies, he also leaves it with a disquieting moral: Ignorance is bliss.

Satomi seems to lead a privileged existence: He is treated with deference and courtesy, while his keepers remain discreetly out of sight. But he is far from untouched by life -- his parents died in a plane crash when he was only 3, leaving him the only survivor. He has been tenderly raised by his grandmother (Kaoru Yachigusa), who is the epitome of traditional kimonoed womanhood, but he has been denied common experiences of humanity, including friendship and romance. (The poor sap can't find a girlfriend because no woman in her right mind wants him critiquing critical parts of her anatomy and describing intimate details of her sex life in public). He is, in short, a 26-year-old boy in a bubble, who knows that something is missing in his life, but isn't quite sure what.

The breaker of this bubble is Yoko Komatsu (Kyoka Suzuki), a psychiatrist dispatched by the satorare protection team to prepare Satomi for a transfer to the staff of a government-sponsored drug research project. Thrilled by this honor and excited by the prospect of studying this rare specimen, she plunges into her work with enthusiasm. Soon, though, she discovers certain unsettling facts: One is that, for all his specialness, Satomi is childishly blunt ("This crap tastes terrible!" is his daily review of the hospital's cafeteria cuisine). Another is that he is attracted to her -- and she finds herself wanting to reciprocate. But how can love find its way with everyone in the hospital listening in?

In playing this comedy of sexual role reversal -- the naive, unworldly Satomi versus the brisk, all-business Yoko -- Ando and Suzuki are a perfectly matched pair. Ando, who got his break as the easily led boxer in Takeshi Kitano's "Kids Return," (1997) has the requisite soft, muzzy features, big, liquid eyes and look of spacey disengagement.

One of the best actresses working in Japanese films today, Suzuki has sleek, leonine good looks and a strong, self-confident presence that are somehow reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn in her prime, though the more usual comparison is to Setsuko Hara. Too bad she is in a Motohiro film instead of a "Philadelphia Story" or "Tokyo Monogatari." But she helps make what could have been a drippy essay on our common humanity entertaining and, in places, exhilarating.

Imagine Tom Hanks in "Cast Away" finding on his desert island, not a soccer ball, but his vision of ideal womanhood. Who would want to leave?


Rating: * * * Director: Katsuyuki Motohiro Running time: 130 min. Language: JapaneseNow playing

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