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Wednesday, April 11, 2001

Comical Sturm und Drang , all in the family


Rating: * * * * Director: Naoto Takenaka Running time: 104 minutes Language: JapaneseNow playing

"What does woman want?" Freud famously asked -- a question that is just as famously unanswerable. At the dawn of the modern feminist era, however, many women seemed to want what Anas Nin, in a 1974 essay for Playgirl, dubbed "the Sensitive Man." This paragon, she wrote, was "the natural sincere man without stance or display, nonassertive, the one concerned with true values, not ambition, who hates war and greed, commercialism and political expediency." A guy, in other words, who would stay home with the kids and do the laundry while his significant other went out into the world to fulfill her inborn talents, express her inner self and pay the mortgage.

Naoto Takenaka, Keika Fukitsuka, Yuta Minowa and Yuki Amami in "Rendan"

In "Rendan (Four-Handed Piano Performance)," a family comedy directed by and starring Naoto Takenaka, we get another answer to Freud's question: Today's woman, with her high-powered career, her designer wardrobe and her young lovers on the side, wants a divorce from the Sensitive Man. The poor dweeb can't win for losing.

The Sensitive Man in question is Shotaro Sasaki (Takenaka), who has inherited property from his landlord father, including the big, gloomy Western-style house in which he lives with wife Minako (Yuki Amami), teenage daughter Mari (Keika Fukitsuka) and 10-year-old son Toru (Yuta Minowa). Thus supplied with a steady income, he has been free to pursue his real interests: cooking, housekeeping and raising his two children. Meanwhile, Minako, a statuesque beauty who towers over her diminutive husband, has powered her way into an executive job with a construction company.

Shotaro seems happy with this arrangement, even though Minako contributes zip toward the upkeep of the household. ("That," she tells him with a brisk finality, "is a man's responsibility.") Instead, she spends her salary on herself, as though she were a part-timer working the register at Ito Yokado. He even takes her frequent absences and her snide remarks about his "stinginess" in stride. He is, after all, living the life he loves.

It all falls apart one day when the hopping-mad wife of Minako's handsome young subordinate barges into a ramen shop where Shotaro and Toru are having lunch and showers them with black-and-white glossies of her hubby and Minako on a hot date that includes an interlude at a love hotel.

In the ensuing shouting and wrestling match at home, during which Minako icily dares Shotaro to do his worst, she gets a bump on the forehead and the marriage goes kaput. What to do with the kids? Minako claims her rights as a mom; Shotaro replies that he has done all the mothering and fathering for both of them.

While this wrangling is going on, the kids are doing their own sorting out. Tubby Toru, who has had photos of Mom and her lover thrust in his face, wants to stay with Dad. ("I'm on the side of justice," he announces.) Cherub-faced Mari, however, is not only a world-wise cynic ("What does justice have to do with it?" she sneers), but fed up with Dad for his unmanly ways.

What this representative of Gen Y wants, it turns out, is an old-fashioned father figure, complete with traditional authority and a real job. This mini-skirted toughie, who pronounces judgment on one and all with typical adolescent severity, is also longing for a little motherly affection, protection -- and home cooking.

For Minako, the form of family life must be maintained, even when its substance has gone to hell. Shotaro may get custody, but she is determined to perform a duet from Brahm's "Hungarian Rhapsody" with Mari at an upcoming piano recital.

Is "Rendan" an antifeminist satire? Yes and no. Working from an award-winning script by Maruo Keizuka, Takenaka is less the biting conservative critic than the puckish observer of contemporary mores, who views Minako not as a moral monster but as a force of nature that a mere man cannot deny. His is a humanistic vision that may delight in caricature, but refuses to condemn. Minako, like everyone else in the film, has her reasons, one being that the hapless Shotaro has shrunk too small for her outsized appetites and ambitions. It is as though a panther were to wake one day and realize that she had mated with a house cat.

Takenaka, a star comedian and actor who has directed three other films prior to "Rendan," and Yuki Amami, a former leading player of male roles for the all-woman Takarazuka theater troupe, work well together as a comic unit, though we never believe for a minute that they are a couple. Also, Takenaka packs the frame with whimsical asides, such as the goofy-looking guys -- Shotaro's companions in unmanliness -- who are always trotting or sauntering or loitering about. Or the pop tunes that the characters are always singing to themselves, as though the whole world were their shower. These loopy background bits add layers of commentary, while softening the familial Sturm und Drang.

"Rendan" is, for long stretches, a very funny movie, especially if, like this reviewer, you happen to be in Shotaro's type of marital arrangement (if not his type of marital distress). It also stretches out too long, much like one of Takenaka's auto-infatuated comedy routines. It ends, though, at the right moment, with the right moral.

Parents are a lot like allergies: You can't choose them, but you'll breath easier if you can learn to live with them and, once in a while, pound out a little Brahms together.

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