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Wednesday, Aug. 8, 2001

Are the fishing fools running out of line?

Tsuri Baka Nisshi 12

Rating: * * 1/2 Director: Katsuhide Motoki Running time: 111 minutes Language: JapaneseOpens Aug. 18

Some sequels make sense, but a "3" or "4" after the title of a Hollywood movie is generally a good reason to stay away unless you happen to be feeling charitable toward a studio with an empty idea bank. I am not alone in thinking so -- few Hollywood franchises make it to "5," let alone "25."

Toshiyuki Nishida and Rentaro Mikuni in "Tsuri Baka Nisshi 12"

Japanese moviegoers for long had a different attitude toward sequels: If they liked the first or second installment, they would keep coming back again and again, until the actors and directors either got fed up, burned out or died.

The most famous example is Yoji Yamada's Tora-san series, about a wandering peddler who was forever falling in love but never got the girl. Starting in 1969, the series ran for 48 episodes, nearly every one a hit, and only ended in 1996, when star Kiyoshi Atsumi passed away. Yamada often compared his repetitive labors to making good bowls of ramen -- an apt analogy for the way the audience consumed the films: as a fun, familiar, easily digestible food that would neither surprise nor disappoint.

In recent years, however, audience tastes have shifted and long-running series have become fewer in the theaters, though they still thrive on video-shop racks.

One of most enduring, the "Tsuri Baka Nisshi (Free and Easy)" series, is a cousin to the hardy Tora-san franchise. Now in its 12th installment, it began life in 1989 as the bottom half of a double bill with a Tora-san film. Like Tora, the hero, one Densuke Hamasaki (Toshiyuki Nishida), aka "Hama-chan," is a middle-aged bumbler with no discernible career ambitions. As in the peripatetic Tora-san series, these films take their central character to all corners of Japan. Yamada and long-time collaborator Yoshitaka Asama have written scripts for both the Tora-san and "Tsuri Baka Nisshi" films, with the same folksy humor, sentimental populism and unabashed tugs at the heartstrings.

Director Katsuhide Motoki handles this material with an unfussy professionalism reminiscent of his mentor Yamada, planning every shot with the audience, not the directorial ego, in mind. Given the many films by younger Japanese directors that are almost willfully obscure, Motoki's clarity and simplicity appeals to those weary of such films, especially the weary who prefer their movies to be glorified television.

Based on a popular manga by Juzo Yamasaki and Ken'ichi Kitami, the series presents Hama-chan as the ultimate antisalaryman stereotype. First, instead of devoting every waking hour to the construction company where he is a hira shain (rank-and-filer), he shirks work at any opportunity to indulge his obsession for fishing.

Second, his best fishing buddy is the gruff, silver-haired company president, Ichinosuke Suzuki (Rentaro Mikuni), whom Hama-chan calls Su-san and treats with no deference whatsoever. Hama-chan, after all, is the fishing expert, and Su-san is his deshi, or pupil. Su-san accepts this arrangement not only because he is a fishing nut himself, but because he is attracted by the human warmth he finds in Hama-chan's world -- a rare commodity at the corporate summit, where everyone is either sucking up to him or plotting behind his back.

But where Hama-chan really differs from most movie salarymen is his devotion to his young, scrumptious wife Michiko (Miyoko Asada). Instead of the usual sexless on-screen marriage between Mr. and Mrs. Workaholic, Hama-chan is a self-confessed sukebe yaro (horny guy) who is always hot to trot and gives his missus a big smacking kiss every morning before he rushes off to work. What is the world coming to?

In episode 12, "Shijo Saidai no Yukyu Kyuka (The Biggest Paid Holiday in History)," Hama-chan and Su-san share screen time with Takano (former Tokyo Gov. Yukio Aoshima), a managing director who is retiring and returning to his native Yamaguchi Prefecture. Takano's retirement, though not unexpected, throws Su-san into a funk: He considered Takano his most trusted subordinate and was thinking of making him president.

But Takano, a former chairman of the company fishing club (of which Hama-chan and Su-san are, naturally, charter members), intends to spend his Golden Years soaking a line in one of the best fishing spots on the Japan Sea -- and Su-san is green with envy. Will he ever enjoy his own "happi ritaiamento" (happy retirement) or will he be a slave to the bottom line till the bitter end?

Instead of paradise in Yamaguchi, however, Takano finds a tumble-down old house that may have been the scene of joyful boyhood memories, but is in desperate need of repair. Takano manfully tackles the job, with the aid of niece Kozue (Rie Miyazawa), the only feminine presence in his life after the death of his wife. Naturally, Hama-chan and Su-san dream up an excuse to visit him, but when they arrive, he is in the hospital -- a kidney has been giving him trouble. The appearance of his old friends gives Takano a lift, but not for long -- his young, long-haired doctor (Hidetaka Yoshioka) has bad news.

Not the most promising story line for a comedy, perhaps. But scriptwriters Yamada and Asama work in the usual allotment of gags, including funny byplay between Hama-chan and his eternally out-of-temper boss (Kei Tani). In one scene, Hama-chan, wonderful to tell, actually does some work, visiting a fishing pal (Ren Osugi) at another company to sweet-talk him out of giving a big construction contract to a rival. "Sweet" is the operative word here, with Hama-chan camping outrageously, as though he'd been studying Nathan Lane's performance in "The Bird Cage." It makes one wonder what really goes on in those fishing boats.

Along with horseplay, however, are reflections on the Meaning of It All, and hints that with its stars, particularly the 76-year-old Rentaro Mikuni, getting long in the tooth, the series is not much longer for the screen. As Takano, Aoshima, who's not only an ex-politician but a former TV funnyman, shows flashes of his old comic shtick, but let's face it: He's no Gielgud. Does anyone have the number of Shintaro Ishihara's agent?

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