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Wednesday, May 16, 2001

A true master in our midst

Tokyo Marigold

Rating: * * * * * Director: Jun Ichikawa Running time: 97 minutes Language: JapaneseNow showing

Film is art, commerce -- and fashion. Actors, directors and even national cinemas are in vogue one year, out the next. Not long ago the British were hot, now it's the turn of the Chinese. The forces that drive trends, including festival programmers, critics and buyers, are attracted by talent, energy and originality, but there is also a herd mentality at work. Yesterday the trendsetters sneered at Hong Kong martial-arts fantasies as silly cult stuff for fan boys; today everyone is looking for the next "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon."

Rena Tanaka in Jun Ichikawa's "Tokyo Marigold"

What does all this have to do with Jun Ichikawa? Despite a long string of awards for his television commercials -- his day job -- and his 11 feature films, Ichikawa has been out of step with trends that have boosted several of his colleagues to international acclaim. Unlike Takeshi Kitano, he has never gone in for the brand of black-comedy violence that Quentin Tarantino made so sexy in the early '90s. Unlike Hideo Nakata, Kiyoshi Kurosawa and other purveyors of "Japanese horror," he has never latched onto a hot genre. In fact, name the cinematic movement of the moment, from art-house minimalism to pop-culture pastiche, and Ichikawa is conspicuous by his absence.

What he has done instead, with flawless craftsmanship and intelligent passion, is produce a body of work that redefines the best traditions of humanist cinema for contemporary Japanese society. Ichikawa may pay homage to such masters as Yasujiro Ozu and Eric Rohmer, but he has developed his own distinctive style and vision for his own time.

While many young filmmakers present today's Japan as either a grotesque fun house or bleak wasteland, in his new film "Tokyo Marigold," Ichikawa can find a fugitive loveliness in birds flitting across the sky of a Kichijoji dawn or in headlamps flickering through the streets of a Shinjuku night. Though he may give his cityscapes a beatific glow that most of us miss when we're running for the train at 7 in the morning, Ichikawa is not merely prettifying but seeing more deeply, more specifically than the average straphanger -- or director.

Also, with dialogue that sounds less written than recorded, he patches together a mosaic of urban moods, urban lives -- of Tokyoites who may be freer of the restraints of the past than their parents were, but who lack their sense of connection with the world around them, who may know the smartest shops, the "in" dating spots, but are falling into increasingly desperate isolation. Oases of an older, more human-scaled city still exist, but for the film's heroine -- a young woman named Eriko (Rena Tanaka) who has broken up with her boyfriend and is drifting through her days -- they offer only temporary refuge.

She is, it is clear from the first scenes of her wandering through the streets of Daikanyama and Aoyama, a woman at one remove from shopping and dating masses around her, who proclaims a love of solitude but is really adrift. She visits her mother (Kirin Kiki), a life-force type who sculpts Henry Moore-like figures and prepares scrumptious-looking noodles, but nothing in her larder can fill the gaping hole in Eriko's life.

She finds a new job as an office worker for a small foreign car dealership, but the real change comes when she attends a go-con -- a kind of group matchmaking party -- and meets Tamura (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), an elite salaryman who is nonetheless charmingly awkward and tongue-tied. Also, instead of asking for her cellphone number, he gives her his -- a bit of sexual role-reversal that she finds intriguing and finally irresistible.

But when she calls Tamura and they go on what seems to be the perfect date, he makes an unsettling confession: He has a girlfriend who is studying in America. The end of a budding affair? Not quite. Eriko can't get him out of her mind. When she chances to see him again, laughing unrestrainedly at the performance of a comedy troupe in a Shimokitaza theater, she falls even harder -- and they soon resume their interrupted romance. Throwing caution to the wind, she asks him to stay with her for a year, until his girlfriend returns. He agrees, and Eriko begins to move from the shadows to the light.

But as the weeks turns into months, we realize that Mr. Right is a wrongo. He may claim that he likes Eriko's sunao (straightforward, pure-hearted) personality, but is taking advantage of her for his own murky ends.

In the hands of another director, "Tokyo Marigold" might have become a weepy cautionary tale illustrating the precepts of that notorious dating guide, "The Rules." Instead, in Ichikawa's hands, the he-done-her-wrong story line is subsumed into a lyrically evocative portrait of a relationship, from its passionate beginning to its troubled middle and unexpected end, in which all of Eriko's longing and doubt are drawn with sympathy and clarity.

Tanaka reveals herself as an actress of uncommon ability, who can express Eriko's turbulent moods with an unforced conviction. We feel her pain because it is really ours as well, as it always is in the best of films. Ichikawa may not be the latest under-40 sensation, but he is the nearest thing we've got to a master -- and maybe someday the rest of the world will realize it as well.

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