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Wednesday, Oct. 3, 2001

The comfort of strangers

Sora no Anna

Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Kazuyoshi Kumakiri Running time: 127 minutes Language: English Now showing

At the 1997 Pia Film Festival, Japan's largest indie-film event, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri won the second grand prize for "Kichiku Daienkai (Banquet of the Beasts)," his graduation project for the film program at Osaka Art University. Eurospace then screened the film at its Shibuya theater, where it became a long-running hit, and several overseas film festivals, including the prestigious Berlin Film Festival, selected it for their programs. A pleasant young man from rural Hokkaido, Kumakiri had gotten the kind of career launch that every fledging filmmaker dreams of.

Yuriko Kikuchi (above) and Susumu Terajima in Kazuyoshi Kumakiri's "Sora no Anna"

There was one problem, however: "Kichiku," which depicted the descent of a sect of 1970s student radicals into madness and murder, was a gory, bloody, thoroughly nasty piece of work that brought to mind George Orwell's comment about the art of Salvador Dali: "It should be possible to say, 'This is a good book or a good picture, and it ought to be burned by the public hangman.' "

What does one do for a follow-up? Many of Kumakiri's friends and advisers urged him to try something entirely different. He was inclined to ignore them, until he began to contemplate a career as the Japanese George Romero. The result, four years later, is "Sora no Ana (Hole in the Sky)," an offbeat romantic drama set in Hokkaido that resembles "Kichiku" about as much as "Sleepless in Seattle" does "Silence of the Lambs."

But it's not as clear-cut as that. "Kichiku" is about not only the human capacity for evil, but the inability of its young radicals to connect with each other save in the orthodoxies of their sect or the urges of their monstrous egos. For all their savagery, there is something childish about them -- they are like 2-year-olds who cannot see other people as real. Everyone and everything is an extension of Me.

"Sora no Ana" also investigates the difficulties young Japanese encounter in reaching out beyond increasingly isolated selves. But though its principals live on the social fringes, they have not, like the characters in "Kichiku," fallen over the edge into barbarism. Instead, they are looking for new horizons, while bearing wounds from the past that have made them shy and strange. Though the film refrains from making any large claims for them, they are, in their own peculiar ways, as representative of their generation as the radicals of "Kichiku" were of theirs.

In telling this story of love and loss, Kumakiri has abandoned the semi-documentary, hyper-charged style of "Kichiku." Instead, his approach is more oblique and restrained, much in the manner of directorial idol Takeshi Kitano. This is regrettable -- there are already too many Kitano acolytes in Japanese films -- but understandable. As a poet of modern alienation, Kitano has created (or appropriated) a stylistic vocabulary that many under-40 Japanese directors feel compelled to either sample or steal. Unless your protagonists are borderline personalities, your dialogue is trimmed to the bone and your camerawork is restrained almost to the point of catatonia, how is anyone to take you seriously?

Kumakiri has even cast one of Kitano's most familiar faces -- Susumu Terajima -- as his lead. Long typed as a hood with an air of menace out of all proportion to his slight frame -- think of a Japanese Joe Pesci -- Terajima is a more versatile actor than he is usually given credit for. In "Sora no Ana" he proves it with a performance that is unusually tender and funny, as well as more typically intense and scary.

He plays Ichio, the taciturn chef at the Sora no Ana, a run-down restaurant along a busy Hokkaido highway. One day a young couple in a red car stops at the restaurant and, on eating and exiting, quarrel. The man, a tanned lout, speeds away and the woman, Taeko (Yuriko Kikuchi), is left stranded. Soon after, Ichio's father, who owns the restaurant but spends every free moment watching the horse races on television, takes off in Ichio's snazzy sports car to follow the ponies around the island with a gambling buddy. Now stranded himself, Ichio stolidly soldiers on, even though he is shorthanded without Dad to wait the tables.

Then Taeko returns to order a meal -- and jumps the bill. Ichio catches her, but lets her off with a warning. That night she camps in a shed near the restaurant and manages to burn it to cinders. For this second offense, Ichio hires her as waitress and gives her a place to stay. Though a space cadet in a short skirt, Taeko knows that she has an obligation to repay. "Don't you want to sleep with me?" she asks Ichio, as casually though she were offering him a stick of Pocky. Ichio refuses -- and a relationship is born.

Ichio and Taeko would seem to be yet another in a long line of odd couples in Japanese indie films. But though they fit the overall pattern -- flaky, hard-to-read woman, silent, emotionally stunted man -- and the film falls into fashionably minimalist attitudes, Kumakiri injects saving touches of offbeat humor while allowing Terajima to do what he does best: explode. His violent confrontation with Taeko's caddish ex-boyfriend boils with a dark power that recalls the Pesci of "Goodfellas" (not "Home Alone").

Is Taeko worth it? As played by newcomer Kikuchi, she is that familiar modern enigma -- the girl who has everything (in terms of looks, youth and freedom) and nothing (in terms of identity, values and self-worth). A blithe spirit, in other words, with hardly a care -- or a hope -- in the world. Ichio, however, sees in her not only an escape from his loneliness but a vision from his past, of the mother who loved and abandoned him.

In the end, though, Taeko -- and Ichio's inchoate feelings about her -- is a slender thread on which to hang the film. There really isn't much there. But for all its silences, "Sora no Anna" eloquently captures the spirit of Hokkaido, with its big skies, wide open spaces -- and sanctuary for people who have fallen through the social grid.

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