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Wednesday, June 6, 2001
The toughest journey for Japan's toughest guy
National cinemas from Hollywood to Bollywood have their icons -- veteran actors who have become box-office powerhouses less for their performances than their onscreen charisma and perfect embodiment of a cultural ideal. Critics sneered at Clint Eastwood's acting for decades, but audiences couldn't get enough of that thin-lipped sneer and whispery growl: Make my day, indeed. Though well past his tough-guy prime, Eastwood can still ring the box-office gong in projects that, like last year's "Space Cowboys," trade on his all-American appeal.
In Japan, Ken Takakura has long played a similar role -- a natural man of few words and fearless deeds. But whereas Eastwood tended to be an impatient, go-it-alone type, blowing away baddies with the hesitation of a roach exterminator on the job, Takakura could spend entire films in the slow-burn mode, exploding into violence only at the end. Much like the American military, Eastwood escalated the weapons race with his enemies to fantastic heights, carrying around cannons that could not only eliminate the opposition, but vaporize it. Meanwhile, Takakura typically went into battle armed only with a sword, adhering strictly to the low-tech, high-risk samurai code, even at the cost of his own life.
Now 70, and with more than 100 films to his credit, Takakura has gracefully transformed from action star into industry elder statesman, embodying core values for his still-large legion of fans, many of whom have followed his career since its beginning.
In his new film, "Hotaru," he plays that most iconographic of Japanese movie figures: a former tokkotai ("special attack force") suicide pilot. After miraculously surviving the war, Hideji Yamaoka (Takakura) worked for decades as a fisherman in Kumamoto, not far from the air base where so many of his comrades left on their one-way flights. Naturally, he is reluctant to talk about his war experiences, especially with a nosy reporter looking for a juicy human interest story after the recent death of Emperor Showa. But those memories, so long suppressed, are still very much alive.
A series of shocks brings them into the open. One is the death of Fujiki (Hisashi Igawa), a former fellow pilot who visited Kumamoto with his granddaughter only one month before but refused to see Yamaoka. When Yamaoka hears that his old comrade hiked alone into the winter mountains of his native Aomori the day Emperor Showa died, he knows that his intent was not junshi -- i.e., to follow his lord in death, in the manner of ancient retainers. By the closing days of the war, even tokkotai pilots had few illusions about the emperor and his empire -- they had other, more personal reasons for climbing into the plane.
Another is the news that his wife of many years, Tomoko (Yuko Tanaka), is dying of kidney disease. Yamaoka asks to be tested as a kidney donor, while recalling the days when Tomoko was still a schoolgirl -- and in love with a fellow pilot, a Korean named Kaneyama (Yukiyoshi Ozawa). Kaneyama flew off to his death and Yamaoka married Tomoko, though she has never forgotten the boy she thought would be her husband.
Still another shock is the request of an elderly woman who manages a restaurant where the tokkotai pilots ate, including their last meals on earth. Now about to retire, she asks Yamaoka to take a keepsake of Kaneyama's to his family in Korea. Reluctantly, he agrees and begins on a journey that may end in humiliating rejection -- or final closure.
Based on a story about the real-life restaurant owner that Takakura first saw on television and suggested be made into a film, "Hotaru" is the kind of Takakura vehicle one would expect: a glossy, dignified summing up designed to draw tears from stones. Director Yasuo Furuhata is of the war generation and understands what it wants from a tokkotai movie -- not a radical re-evaluation, but an emotional affirmation.
Even so, the film is not jingoistic in the Hollywood "Top Gun" sense: It presents the pilots as tragic figures, who gave their lives for their families and their country, with a small "c" -- not some general's idea of Imperial glory.
This elegiac approach is common among the many films made about the tokkotai pilots. What sets "Hotaru" apart is its focus on the character of Kaneyama, a Korean who flew not for the sake of his Japanese masters, but his own people. It is his affirmation of principle, made with powerful simplicity by the talented Ozawa ("Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa," "Tokyo Marigold"), that supplies the film's emotional mainspring.
"Hotaru," however, belongs to Takakura, whose uncluttered, firmly centered performance is a capstone to a brilliant career. He has outlasted all the critical jibes -- and justly so. With nothing more to prove, he does what he has always done best: Give his millions of fans a pride in being Japanese that goes beyond flag-waving and "banzai"-shouting. The next generation should be so lucky.