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Wednesday, Aug. 15, 2001

The powerful roar of distant waves


Rating: * * * * Director: Hiroshi Okuhara Running time: 111 minutes Language: Japanese Now showing

Are we all going to end up slaving 24/7? The Japanese have long led the way to an all-work, no-play future, but now the Americans, writes Martin Kettle in Guardian Unlimited, are catching up.

Chiharu Konno and Tatsushi Omori in "Nami"

"When Americans say they are available 24/7, they say it with a pride and breezy confidence that it's exactly the sort of thing that you ought to be glad to hear," he concludes. "But the more often I hear that phrase, the more I think madness is afoot. To me, 24/7 is a shorthand way of describing a living hell."

By that standard, the characters of Hiroshi Okuhara's "Nami (Wave)" are in paradise. All are twentysomethings drifting through the end of summer at a resort town on the Izu Peninsula, working desultorily at undemanding jobs and falling into casual affairs. But underneath the calm lapping of days, currents are roiling with dark pasts, unexpressed desires, contemplated crimes.

From the 24/7 treadmill, with deadlines to meet, bills to pay and children to raise, it is tempting to envy or deride these characters, hard to see them for what they are. It is Okuhara's talent to turn down the noise and pare away the clutter, until we can't help but see and even empathize, especially if we have a similar postadolescent moratorium in our past. This is a talent that Yasujiro Ozu and other masters of the less-is-more school of Japanese cinema once shared, but has become rarer in these days of sensory overload and media overkill.

True, many younger directors in Japan and elsewhere in Asia practice a minimalism that regards the one-scene, one-cut style as holy writ and the closeup as a sinful indulgence, but too often the result is pretentious posturing -- tedium enshrined as art. Okuhara may use elements of the minimalist canon, but he is less a true believer than a close observer and careful listener, who films in the key of his characters' quietly desperate lives.

The first one we meet is Kensaku (Sakutaro Inui), who for the past three years has been working as a desk clerk at a Nishi Ito hotel and taking care of a bedridden old man who may or may not be his father. Though seemingly a mild-mannered type content with his dead-end job and nursing chores, Kensaku is also tall, good-looking and able to get his way with women.

Thus, his disappointment when his lover of the summer before, Mika (Asako Kobayashi), coolly informs him that she is seeing a college classmate. While working a dead-end job of her own -- tending a filling station for an old man who may be her grandfather -- Mika is also a dedicated amateur photographer, and Kensaku's photo is no longer in her portfolio.

He soon rebounds, however, when an attractive guest, Yuka (Chiharu Konno), shows up with a reservation for a double, but asks for a single. Deducing, correctly, that she is floundering in the wreckage of a recent breakup, he offers her, in rapid succession, his books, his company and his futon. In accepting all three, Yuka quickly blossoms from timid mouse to sexy vamp, but Kensaku still carries a torch for Mika. When Yuka happens on Kensaku's housemate and tries to pry into his affairs, he explodes -- Mr. Nice Guy no longer. Then, in an interesting twist, Yuka and Mika discover each other, become friends and reconcile with Kensaku. Three wandering atoms form a highly unstable new molecule.

The one to smash it is Tatsu (Tatsushi Omori), a glib, grinning petty crook who was once Kensaku's partner in crime. In debt and on the run, Tatsu reunites with his old pal after an eight-year lapse, five of which Kensaku spent in prison. While looking for ways to illicitly boost his bank account, Tatsu tries to bed Mika and, in succeeding, upsets a delicate balance.

Though its story of summer, surf and hot young bodies is hardly new, "Nami" rejects all the seishun eiga ("youth film") cliches such as the fun-fun-fun-in-the-warm-Izu-sun hype of the frothier ones and the troubled-youths-with-pure-hearts sentimentalism of the more serious. Instead, Okuhara, who also wrote the script, takes a low-key, naturalistic approach. Watching scene after perfectly pitched scene, one gets the impression that he not only knows types much like his four protagonists, but has been one himself.

Though several shifts in tone and mood are sudden -- Kensaku and Yuka drop the keigo (polite language) and get up close and personal in the space of one beat -- none feel forced. This, we see, is the way these things work today -- for Kensaku, Yuka and the others, mere sex is no big deal. True intimacy, however, is another matter: Even Kensaku's solicitude for the bedridden old man is motivated, he admits to Yuka, more by self-interest than filial devotion. Okuhara may be an heir to the aesthetic of Ozu, including the mono no aware pathos at its core, but his world view is closer to that of Nagisa Oshima, whose young rebels could be ferally cold as well as preeningly tough.

His four stars turn in a strong ensemble performance, though Sakutaro Inui, as Kensaku, is the standout. At first seeming as blandly handsome and blank as a hero in a Bresson film, his Kensaku has the coiled watchfulness and cool self-assurance of the con who can take care of himself and get what he wants.

At the same time, unlike Tatsu, he has not hardened into the monstrous self-regard of the career criminal. Kensaku is still in the limbo of young men in their 20s who have no clear goal except avoidance of adulthood. By the end of the film, with its final act of violence that is absolutely consistent with everything that has gone before, I felt that I knew him, if not understood him. No one could, really -- least of all Kensaku himself.

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