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Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2001

Welcome to my worst nightmare

Kemonogare -- Orera no Saru to

Rating: * * 1/2 Director: Hideaki Sunaga Running time: 107 minutes Language: Japanese Now showing

Japanese love their movie music -- why else would they sit en masse through the credit crawl, listening raptly to the musical wallpaper that unscrolls in Hollywood films after the bombastic theme song ends and the tech credits begin?

Masatoshi Nagase in "Kemonogare -- Orera no Saru to"

Knowing this quirk in local tastes, Japanese producers will hire the hottest talent they can afford to write and perform their film's tema songu (theme song), even if the rest of the budget is equivalent to a round-trip ticket for two on the Yamanote Line. Meanwhile, publicists will put the names of a film's musical contributors up with the stars in the posters and fliers, while giving them big play in the program, including an in-depth interview with a pop diva whose only connection with the film is an afternoon recording session.

The logical extension of this, in the second decade of the MTV era, has been Japanese films that are feature-length music videos in all but name. They aren't musicals in the usual sense -- no one bursts into song in the middle of the action -- but their soundtrack is in our ears and often in our faces every second of screen time.

As much as this can be fun in small doses, I often find an entire film's-length of it nerve-frazzling, if not coma-inducing. A sign of advancing age? Maybe, but I fell out of love with Hiroyuki Nakano's "Samurai Fiction" after about 15 minutes, not because my middle-aged nerves couldn't stand the drum 'n' bass, but because my middle-aged brain realized that the film wasn't going to be about anything but its own self-congratulatory cool.

On the other hand, I liked Shinya Tsukamoto's "Tetsuo," "Tetsuo II" and "Tokyo Fist," even though the auditory assault made "Samurai Fiction" sound like Mozart. In the best of Tsukamoto's work, the industrial-strength soundtrack is a perfect accompaniment for the boiling rage of the protagonists -- a rage as genuine as it is blackly comic.

In his debut feature, "Kemonogare -- Orera no Saru to (Getting Wild With Our Monkey)," Hideaki Sunaga falls somewhere midway on the Nakano/Tsukamoto spectrum -- not as twee as the former, not as madly inspired as the latter. The latest vid-clip whiz to attempt the big-screen treatment, Sunaga is, like Nakano, a cutie who wants to entertain, but he also has a Dalian way of taking his nightmares to their surreal limit, with a distinctive wit, flair and glee in making his audience squirm. A score by Shigekazu Aida that attacks like a power drill to the skull is only half of it.

The setup promises a dark satire on life in the modern madhouse. A down-and-out scriptwriter named Sashi (Masatoshi Nagase) is living alone in a roach-trap of a house, his wife departed for England, his bank account trending to zero. His rich father-in-law has disowned him, the local liquor store owner has blacklisted him, and the mama-san at his favorite bar has even given him a Fukuzawa (10,000 yen note) to keep him from darkening her door. "I want to live a meaningful life," he mumbles to himself, but first he has to do something about the unfriendly graffiti covering his door (compliments of the neighbors) and the huge, loathsome insects buzzing through his rooms (courtesy of evil geniuses on the effects staff).

One bright summer day salvation arrives in the form of Mr. Kajiyama (Hosei Komatsu), an elderly eccentric who wears a goofy ball cap, speaks in excruciatingly polite Japanese and has a racking cough. Kajiyama says he is a film producer in need of a script -- and Sashi is the man to write it. Sashi is skeptical, until Kajiyama hands him an envelope full of cash. After celebrating wildly -- then realizing his deadline is only two weeks away, Sashi sets off, like any other conscientious hack, to do his research.

He first intuits that this job may not be a walk in the park when an irritating encounter with an obnoxious clerk at a bookstore turns into a hellacious session with the store's lantern-jawed security guard, who beats poor Sashi nearly senseless. "What did I do?" he wails as the blows land. Nothing -- but step through the looking glass.

Beaten and bedraggled, he finally finds himself at his destination -- a junkyard inhabited by suspicious-looking hippie types, one of whom offers to take him to the station for a fee. Amazingly, Sashi still has the envelope Kajiyama gave him, and it still contains his advance. He is clearly not in a bad dream -- or is he? A bad dream, he decides, would be preferable.

But fate -- or whoever else the mysterious Kajiyama has on his side -- is not about to let Sashi off so easily. He has much else to endure on his odyssey to a paycheck, including death-defying drives with the implacable Kajiyama at the wheel, a nightmarish evening with a twitchy gay man (Minoru Torihada) who prepares dinner as though he were battling demons, and a bizarre visit to a coffee shop from hell, where the smilingly senile proprietor serves milkshakes swimming with . . . but perhaps I shouldn't spoil your breakfast. Throughout much of this flimflammery, Sashi's only halfway sane companion is -- you guessed it -- a baby monkey named Angie. Kawaii!

Throughout all this, however, Sashi is never quite sure whether he is unconscious or not, though before jolting awake he sees a bizarre statue of a rearing dragonfly posed against the rising sun. (This being Japan, the statue is real.) He is, we realize early on, heading to a flipout to end all flipouts -- the only logical response to a world gone mad.

After taking many similar voyages to the cinematic outer limits, Nagase is an old hand at Sunaga's brand of fashionable anarchy, playing Sashi with a scruffy charm, while giving him a grounding in grass-is-green (or rather bills-come-due) reality. Everyone and everything else is over the top, including the score, which veers from ancient J-pop (Yuzo Kayama; Seiko Matsuda) to buzz-saw techno. Whether you find this amusing or not depends on your tolerance for TV funnymen from the more-is-more school of comedy. "Kemonogare Orera no Saru to" is The Drifters for a new millennium.

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