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Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2001

Not fade away

Japan's film masters set the twilight reeling


Rating: * * *
Director: Kon Ichikawa
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: Japaneese

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge

Rating: * * 1/2
Japanese title: Akai Hashi no Nurui Mizu
Director: Shohei Imamura
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese

Pistol Opera

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Japanese

Directors seldom retire -- voluntarily at any rate. But for every Manoel de Oliveira, the 92-year-old Portuguese master who made his first film in 1931 and released his most recent, "I'm Going Home," this year, many once-celebrated directors have been rendered unemployable in middle age by the vagaries of the movie business. The saddest case was that of Orson Welles, who made his masterpiece, "Citizen Kane," while still in his 20s, but spent his last decades in a largely futile chase after backers.

In Japan, directors who have attained revered master status are more likely than their Hollywood counterparts to keep working into their 60s, 70s and beyond. Kaneto Shindo -- at 89, Japan's oldest active director and second only to Oliveira worldwide in professional longevity -- released "Sanmon Yakusha (Byplayer)" last year, a film commemorating the 50th anniversary of his production company, Kindai Eiga Kyokai. He is hardly alone among the over-65 set: Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda, Kinji Fukasaku, Shohei Imamura, Kon Ichikawa and Seijun Suzuki have all finished films within the last year or so, with Fukasaku's ultraviolent "Battle Royale" becoming one of this year's big box-office hits.

One reason is cultural: In Japan, seniority still counts, so graying executives with the yen and the green-lighting authority will often finance or hire a directorial sensei whom they know and trust, even if said sensei has not had a real critical or commercial success in donkey's years. In Hollywood, older directors with spotty recent track records often find themselves talking more to earnest film scholars than their agent, assuming they still have one.

Three of the aforementioned Japanese masters now have films on release -- a cause of celebration for not only the directors themselves and their fans, but the Japanese film industry as a whole. Though Ichikawa, Imamura and Suzuki could not be more different in career paths or directorial styles, they have all brought a touch of genius to a business badly in need of it. They are three big reasons why anyone outside Japan cares about the films being made here.

Purists will argue that anything these masters put on film is essential viewing, while less-committed types who suffered through Akira Kurosawa's late-career exercises in geriatric cinema would beg to differ. "Madadayo," Kurosawa's last and worst film, is a good argument for turning its title on its head. Instead of "not yet," it was more like "enough is enough."

The most senior of this trio, the 86-year-old Ichikawa, has also been the most hardheaded about the business and freely admits that many of his more than 80 films have been works-for-hire. At the same time, he is a consummate craftsman and professional, giving a high sheen to otherwise routine genre products and scoring at the box office more often than not. As a result, he has kept working steadily through decades when most of his contemporaries either fell by the wayside or struggled along in a professional twilight.

News photo
Keiko Kishi in "Ka-chan"

His most recent film, "Ka-chan," is the latest in a long line of his literary adaptations that includes "Enjo (Conflagration)" (1958), "Kagi (The Key)" (1959) and "Sasameyuki (The Makioka Sisters)" (1983). This time the source is a story by Shugoro Yamamoto, a popular writer whose earthy tales of life among the common folk also inspired three films by Kurosawa. "Ka-chan" was co-scripted by Hiroshi Takayama and Natto Wada, Ichikawa's wife, who wrote some of his best films in the 18 years before her death in 1983.

The setting is Edo in the late Tempo Era (1830-44), in the grip of an economic depression after a series of failed government reforms. Sound familiar? A strong-willed matriarch (Keiko Kishi) struggles to keep her brood of five -- including three grown sons and a pretty, marriageable daughter -- on the road to financial survival, if not success. She has also given them a strong moral core, as evidenced by their collective effort to save a friend of the oldest son from ruin.

She faces a sterner test, however, when a thief (Ryuji Harada) invades her humble abode and demands her money -- including the coins she and her children have scraped together for the oldest son's friend. Instead of calling on her sleeping boys to beat the invader to a pulp, she sweet-talks him out of his demand -- and invites him to join the family. The thief, a young first-timer driven to this desperate strait by poverty, accepts her offer, though he can't help feeling uneasy about the secret he has to keep from his new "cousins," especially the daughter.

Ninety-six minutes long, "Ka-chan" plays the way a short story of the end-with-a-moral sort reads. The characters are less individuals than types, while every scene is in service of the heartwarming climax. Though timely enough, the film is old-fashioned popular entertainment designed to affirm and reassure rather than challenge. Its principals, most notably Ka-chan, are all upright, gentle-spirited types intended to make the audience feel better about being Japanese.

There is, however, a certain dry humor in the tone and sophistication in the execution that is distinctively Ichikawa, who may traffic in sentiment, but rarely in sentimentalism. The usual mass-audience period drama presents premodern Japan as a glorified folk museum, with everyone and everything glowingly colorful and impeccably traditional. Ichikawa, however, shows the poverty of the era in all its grim, gray horror, with even Ka-chan and her family looking one shaky step above destitution.

Imamura is another director with an interest in the lower levels of Japanese society -- an interest that has informed much of his career. Instead of being a populist, however, Imamura has gone about his investigations in such films as "Buta to Gunkan (Pigs and Battleships)" (1961), "Fukushu Suru no wa Ware ni Ari (Vengeance Is Mine)" (1979) and "Ee Ja Nai Ka (Why Not?)" (1981), taking a more anthropological, or even entomological, view. At the same time, he has long been fascinated with the lower half of the body, particularly that of his lusty, strong-willed, decidedly eccentric female protagonists.

News photo
Misa Shimizu and Koji Yakusho in "Akai Hashi no Nurui Mizu"

These strands of Imamura's work come together in his latest film, "Akai Hashi no Nurui Mizu (Warm Water Under a Red Bridge)," though with a kinder, gentler, more whimsical touch than formerly. But what might have seemed daring in 1961, particularly the "oceanic" sensuality of the heroine, now looks almost willfully out of step with the times -- more like the naughty fantasies of an aging roue than cutting-edge cinema.

A restructured salaryman (Koji Yakusho) befriends a homeless philosopher, who tells him about a treasure in an old house near Toyama Bay, next to a river crossed by a red bridge. When the philosopher dies, the salaryman, Sasano, sets out in search of the treasure. Instead, he finds, in a supermarket, Saeko (Misa Shimizu), a woman with a spacy, sensuous air, who drips water from underneath her skirt as she leaves the store.

Sasano follows her and finds that she lives with her senile mother in the house he is looking for. Rather than ferret out the treasure, however, he becomes her lover and learns her secret: She is a human reservoir who accumulates water to bursting point. It is only by having sex and making the dam burst, so to speak, that she can find relief.

Instead of recoiling from the need to swab the decks after each love-making session, Sasano is enraptured. He finds a room at a local inn, gets a job on a fishing boat and comes running each time Saeko signals distress with a flashing mirror.

The woman-as-lifegiving-sea metaphor is not only crashingly obvious, but its expression in the film -- water spewing like a geyser from between Saeko's thighs at the critical moment -- is thuddingly literal. Talented professionals that they are, Yakusho and Shimizu bring off these scenes with the right unflinching elan, but this doesn't mean they aren't embarrassing. There is a puckish sweetness to the unusual love story, as well as flashes of Imamura's trademark vitality, but the film is something of a private joke.

A bigger prankster, however, is Suzuki. As a contract director for Nikkatsu in the 1960s, Suzuki churned out yakuza programmers with a growing disdain for genre convention or grass-is-green reality. Instead, he used influences from kabuki to Pop Art and the French Nouvelle Vague to create a cheeky, calculated blend of hypercharged action and wacky surrealism, offered up with the straightest of faces and, to those in the know, expressing the essence of cool. The culmination was the 1967 thriller "Koroshiya no Rakuin (Branded to Kill)." It focuses on Hitman No. 3 played with appealing insolence by Joe Shishido, who finds himself with a death-obsessed Japanese-Indian girl for a client -- and locked in a duel with the mysterious No. 1 in the hit man's guild. The film got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu (the studio president found it incomprehensible) but became a cult classic in Japan and abroad.

News photo
Makiko Esumi (with gun) and Sayako Yamaguchi in"Pistol Opera"

Now, after a decade-long gap since the release of his last film, "Yumeji," in 1991, Suzuki has returned with "Pistol Opera," a reworking of "Koroshiya," with women playing the main roles. Shot in contrasty black-and-white, "Koroshiya" was -- despite all its Mod flourishes -- a gritty, noirish-looking film. "Pistol Opera," on the other hand, is shot in gaudy primary colors and staged with flamboyant theatricality -- Taisho Decadent entertainment for the new millennium. There are even long set pieces in which the actors declaim to the audience and the action comes to a dead halt. The film, in other words, is Suzuki without studio bosses breathing down his neck, free to be as bad as he wants to be.

But the bad boy act works only as long as there are real authority figures to rebel against. Minus all restraint, it quickly devolves into mere self-indulgence and display. Granted, Suzuki still has his old stylistic flair and imaginative fecundity and is even more outrageous than he was in 1967: Think Takarazuka channeled through the antic spirits of Salvador Dali and Jean Cocteau. But with only the flimsiest, if convoluted, of stories to tether it,

"Pistol Opera" spins off into the ether, where its gyrations become tiresome.

No. 3, aka Nora Neko ("Stray Cat") aka Miyuki Minazuki (Makiko Esumi), is given a job by sultry guild representative Kayoko Kamigyo (Sayoko Yamaguchi): Whack No. 1, the elusive, but deadly Hyakume ("Hundred Eyes"). From here, the film becomes the most elaborate and deceptive of puzzles.

In solving it, Miyuki meets Goro Hamada (Mikijiro Hira) -- the No. 3 of "Koroshiya," now retired from active duty and elevated to the honorary title of No. 0. She also encounters various rivals, including a mad, wheelchair-bound teacher and a mysterious man in black (Masatoshi Nagase), while a little girl tags after her and begs to learn the hit man's trade. Finally, she receives an invitation she can't refuse, from No. 1 himself.

As played by Esumi, a leggy former fashion model with a commanding presence, Miyuki is a striking vision in kimono and leather boots. She is, however, little more than a swaggering pose, without the sweaty desperation and let-it-all-hang-out eroticism of Shishido's original No. 3.

Be that as it may, Suzuki no doubt had a ball putting Miyuki and his other fantastic inventions through their paces. Having long since ascended to Japan's cinematic pantheon, he, together with Ichikawa and Imamura, are now playing Olympian games. To fault them for being removed from the cares and concerns of we mortals is beside the point. Better instead to be grateful for their last fruits.

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