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Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2001

Composer plays musical chairs


Rating: * * 1/2 Director: Joe Hisashi Running time: 113 minutes Language: Japanese Now showing

As Japan's most in-demand screen composer, Joe Hisaishi has worked with Takeshi Kitano, Hayao Miyazaki and other leading Japanese directors, in addition to performing in a variety of musical formats, from solo to orchestral concerts. His film music is, depending on taste, either maddeningly simple and repetitive (after a screening of "Kikujiro" at Cannes, a critic for Vogue told me he felt like driving the theme song out of his head with a hammer) or entrancingly melodic and atmospheric.

Yoshihiko Hakamada and Sachiko Sakurai in "Quartet"

Most Japanese film fans are, evidently, of the latter opinion. Hisaishi, however, has more than a talent for easy-listening piano tunes, as he proves in "Quartet," an ambitious attempt to create what he describes as "Japan's first truly musical film." He not only scored this drama about a no-hope string quartet trying for a last shot at fame and fortune, but also cowrote and directed it, both career-firsts.

Over the years, the Japanese film industry has made its share of Hollywood-style musicals, as well as biopics of famous musicians, but no Japanese filmmaker, Hisaishi claims, has ever completely integrated story and soundtrack with a musical theme in mind. In fact, he says in a program interview, he didn't direct the film so much as conduct it, telling his staff that he wanted a certain cut to last, not so many seconds, but beats.

The film's zero-to-hero formula, however, has many predecessors, from the all-singing, all-dancing musicals of the 1930s, with their let's-put-on-a-show story lines, to "Saturday Night Fever," with John Travolta's disco triumph in white polyester. The difference is less one of type than of degree -- Hisaishi's on-screen quartet is constantly either practicing, performing or listening. Somehow, he has packed 40 original tunes into the score, including snatches of the themes for "My Neighbor Totoro," "Kids Return" and "Hana-Bi," as well as a piece composed especially for the film: "Quartet."

Far from being a bit of noodling on the piano, "Quartet" is the musically challenging choice of his protagonists for their big contest, to go up against the Beethoven and Mozart of their rivals. Hubris on Hisaishi's part? Certainly, but he reasoned correctly that fans wouldn't come to a Hisaishi movie to hear endless sawing at a classical war horse. He also gets his self-inflicted comeuppance. Best not to say how.

The problem with the film is not musical -- fans will find the score a Greatest Hits delight, while musicians will discover a rare insider's look at the agonizing process of bringing a new piece to the concert stage. It lies, instead, in the predictability of the story, which unfolds like a mechanical card trick from a preprepared deck, and the perfunctoriness of the acting, which is almost forgivable considering that the actors are usually trying to mind their fingering while saying their lines.

The protagonists are like many musical college graduates, a few years into their careers: searching for recognition, remuneration or simply a reason for not giving up.

The one who has it best is Akio (Yoshihiko Hakamada), a brilliant violinist and the concertmaster of the fictitious Morioka Symphony Orchestra. Akio, however, is a prickly type, and when his orchestra merges with another, he finds himself out of work.

Meanwhile, Tomoko (Sachiko Sakurai) is playing the violin for a second-rate enka singer and, after the show, avoiding his lecherous clutches; Daisuke (Nao Omori) is teaching violin students and wishing he could turn the volume down; and cellist Ai (Kaoru Kukita) is still entering contests and watching others walk off with the prizes.

In their student days, these four were members of a string quartet that made embarrassing gaffes in front of an important audience and blew a big chance. Now at loose ends, they happen to audition for the same Tokyo orchestra on the same day. No one gets a job, but they renew old ties and, with the encouragement of a former teacher (Tomokazu Miura), decide to re-form their old quartet for a contest with a grand prize of 4 million yen. Akio selects a piece by an unknown composer called "Quartet," but nothing goes right. Whatever harmony they once had has long since disappeared. Frustrated, Akio tries to browbeat the others into perfection, but hits a stone wall of resistance.

How can these four losers get their groove back? They must find not only a new approach to practice, but new, more confident selves.

Most gritting-through-to-glory musical films, at least ones in which the heroes play instruments, involve fakery, and "Quartet" is no exception -- the performances are all dubbed by professional musicians. Nonetheless, the three violinists in the cast underwent grueling training to be able to fake it at a competitive level. That they rise to the occasion is to their credit. The one pro in the cast, cellist Kurita, contributes the most to this illusion of competence, while trying the hardest to fade into the woodwork -- and largely succeeding.

Hakamada, who made a memorable screen debut as a male prostitute in Ryosuke Hashiguchi's "Hatachi no Binetsu (A Slight Touch of Fever)" (1992), supplies the heat that Kurita lacks, but his "tortured genius" act grates. Fortunately, Hisaishi knows when to ease off with moments of comic relief. Ever see a string quartet perform in front of shrieking children, nodding oldsters, mooing cows or sullen Shibuya girls? They do in "Quartet" -- an apt metaphor for what Hisaishi, in composing for films, does for a living. Perhaps after years of making music that most of the audience barely registers until the closing credits, Hisaishi decided to bring his work up front and center -- and finally get his due.

It makes one wonder what a movie by an art director would be like -- an adventure in interior decorating?

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