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Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2001

The school of hard knocks



Mabudachi

Rating: * * * *
Director: Tomoyuki Furumaya
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Japanese and Western audiences like many of the same movies -- "Titanic" ruled in Tokyo as well as Tuscon -- but some more than others. They also often have different takes on the same film. Why did Lars von Trier's musical melodrama "Dancer in the Dark" become a smash hit in Japan but only have modest success in the United States? One reason: Its story of motherly self-sacrifice opened the tears ducts of more Japanese moviegoers than their American counterparts. Another: The film's cultural and linguistic discords, particularly Icelandic pop-star Bjork's mumbly mangling of her English-language dialogue, didn't matter as much here as in Tuscon (assuming it even played there).

News photo
Yuta Nakajima, Yamato Okitsu, Ryosuke Takahashi and Takayuki Kikuchi in Tomoyuki Furumaya's "Mabudachi"

Rob Reiner's "Stand By Me" (1986) is another case in point, if not one so extreme. The quintessential Baby Boomer coming-of-age film, packed with generationl pop-culture references, it struck many a chord with American males of a certain age -- and earned $50 million at the U.S. box office. It also became a hit and is perhaps even more fondly remembered in Japan, even though few viewers here spent happy boyhood moments singing the "Have Gun Will Travel" theme with their friends.

Its influence can be seen in subsequent Japanese films, such as Shinji Somai's "Natsu no Niwa (The Friends)" (1994), whose boy heroes bond in the summertime stalking of a mysterious old man, and Tetsuya Nakashima "Natsujikan no Otonatachi (Happy-Go-Lucky)" (1997), whose young protagonist faces a small-but-important character test, while his parents remember childhood roads not taken.

Even closer to "Stand By Me" in approach and spirit is Tomoyuki Furumaya's "Mabudachi (Bad Company)," the winner of the VPRO Tiger Award for new directors at the 2001 Rotterdam Film Festival. Similar to Stephen King (the author of the novella on which "Stand By Me" was based), director and scriptwriter Furumaya tells a semi-autobiographical story, set in the 1970s, of a seemingly minor boyhood incident that forever changes the lives of its principals.

Also, much like "Stand By Me" director Rob Reiner, Furumaya and cinematographer Masami Inomoto give their film a warming nostalgic tinge, with images of rural Nagano that remind us of how beautiful this country was before developers slathered it with concrete. "Mabudachi" is not, however, a fond glance back. The light of dusk on a school playground may look rosy, but the students there are undergoing torments such as our adult selves often prefer to forget.

Like Reiner, Furumaya does not idealize or caricature his young actors on the screen. They look and act like the ordinary kids they are playing, while having distinct personalities that derive less from inspired acting than good casting. In other words, Haley Joel Osment these boys are not -- and the film is better for it.

Sadatomo (Yamato Okitsu), Tetsuya (Ryosuke Takahashi) and Shuji (Yuta Nakajima) are best friends at a junior high school in the mountains of Nagano. Their be^te noire is Mr. Kobayashi (Mikio Shimizu), a shambling bear of a homeroom teacher who makes them keep a daily journal of their thoughts and feelings. Woe to those who do not bare their souls with the aim of improving the same under Kobayashi's stern guidance. Though a moral absolutist, who divides his charges into "human beings" and "trash," Kobayashi is no fool. He knows when kids are blowing smoke -- and the biggest smoke blower of all is Sadatomo, a puffy-faced scamp and schemer who coaches his buddies on how to fake their journal entries.

One day Sadatomo, Tetsuya, Shuji and two others kids finagle some snacks from a senile granny at a local shop, a variation of their usual shoplifting games. Unfortunately, Kobayashi gets wind of this prank when the owner complains and the class suck-up finds Shuji's student badge in front of the shop. Under Kobayashi's grilling, the chubby, babyish Shuji quickly confesses. The teacher calls in the boys' parents, who administer the expected scoldings and slaps, and humiliates the students in front of the class and orders them to write a 30-page journal entry on their wrongdoing.

Tetsuya, a smart, sensitive boy who is more Sadatomo's equal than he realizes, spins out the pages, inspired by the hurt he has given his parents. Shuji, barely able to write his daily paragraph, let alone 30 pages, shows his repentance by holding two buckets full of water for what seems like hours on the school playground. Sadatomo, though chastened, refuses to crack -- and "accidentally" dumps his essay of contrition into the river. But Kobayashi has his triumph when Shuji, now convinced of his utter worthlessness, begins to punish himself in ways far more extreme than a one-man endurance contest.

Kobayashi is a monster, but of the everyday, not fairy-tale, variety. As played by veteran stage actor Mikio Shimizu, he is a type of Japanese male we all run into sooner or later -- the lord of his own petty domain, be it an office desk or bar stool, who must always be right and fiercely resents anyone of lower status who tells him otherwise. What is frightening about Kobayashi, however, is not his outward pompousness and arrogance -- for in truth he has little of either -- but his serene confidence that his bullying is for the good of his victims, a belief that has the approval of an entire community and culture.

Yamato Okitsu's Sadatomo may not be the usual seishun eiga (youth movie) hero -- he exudes low cunning rather than the standard pure-hearted naivete -- but he is entirely credible as Kobayashi's mortal enemy. Think a Japanese Tom Sawyer, minus the grandiosity and sweetness of Mark Twain's creation. Think a Japanese Huck Finn who would rather remain "trash" -- and true to himself -- than become Kobayashi's idea of a human being. May his tribe increase.



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