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Wednesday, Feb. 13, 2002

A room without a view


Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Shun Nakahara
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Japan once aspired to surpass America; now it is struggling to avoid the fate of Argentina. With more companies going under and more jobs going south (or to China), more people are under stress or breaking down entirely. The latter phenomenon is not confined to the overworked and unemployed, however, but extends to the growing number of Japanese who have retreated to the safety of the four walls. Called hikikomori (literally, "the housebound"), they tend to be young males who may have aced their entrance exams, but find communicating with other human beings troublesome -- or terrifying.

News photo
Miwako Ichikawa in Shun Nakahara's "Concent (The Plug)"

Shun Nakahara's new film, "Concent (The Plug)," deals with the now-trendy theme of hikikomori, but is not a typical "problem film." Based on a best-selling novel by Randy Taguchi, it is more concerned with spiritual malaise than topical issues, with self-awakening than social reform. Though it begins as the sort of dark, difficult film that wins respectful critical attention (while emptying theaters), its undercurrents of sensuality, leaps into fantasy and cathartic ending make it an energizing cinematic tonic, albeit one that skeptics will find hard to swallow.

It also seems to have the wrong actress at its center. Playing a woman raised in a violently dysfunctional family and dealing with her brother's tragic death, Miwako Ichikawa comes across as too lightweight for the role. It's as though flaky Phoebe Buffay of "Friends" were to find herself in a Ken Loach film. (A tall, unconventional beauty, Ichikawa even has the look of a Japanese Lisa Kudrow.) By the end, however, we understand why she got the part -- and deserves it. She is smarter and more self-aware than she first lets on. (Just as Kudrow, as all her fan sites assure us, is really an Ivy League brain.)

Yuki Asakura (Ichikawa), a writer for an investment magazine, is recovering from an alcohol-induced tryst with Kimura (Jun Uemura), a staff photographer, when she gets a call from home; her older brother (Hoka Kinoshita) has died. Arriving for the funeral, she finds her mother shattered and her father apoplectic; a drifter who could never hold down a job and who spent his last years in a room, her brother slowly starved himself to death.

Going to his apartment to collect his things, she finds a man engaged in the appalling task of cleaning the place. He is, however, professional, sympathetic and wise in a way that Yuki finds reassuring. She notices the vacuum-cleaner plug her brother left in the wall; it is, she says, a message of some kind -- and the cleaning man agrees. Neither he nor Yuki, however, know what that message means. She spends the rest of the film trying to decipher it.

In the course of this investigation, she remembers incidents from the past that offer clues. She also sees disturbing apparitions of her dead brother, with his buttoned-up shirt, plastered down hair and look of strangled rage and pain. Fearing that she might go over the edge herself, she seeks oblivion in drink and solace in frantic sex with the bemused Kimura.

By immersing herself in the sensations of the body, she hopes to keep from floating off to the Beyond (i.e., becoming "unplugged"). She can't help noticing, however, the smell of illness on her lover's breath, much as she sniffed out the emotional atmosphere in her brother's room. (The photographer is later diagnosed with colon cancer.)

Not finding relief with Kimura, she goes to Kunisada (Masahiko Cha), her former college seminar teacher, with whom she once had an everything-but affair. A clinical psychologist, he agrees, reluctantly, to counsel her. As they dig into the past, she not only recalls sensei's bizarre sexual escapades, but sees visions that threaten to invade her world and unsettle her reason. The answer, she believes, lies in a documentary she remembers watching with her brother, about a schizophrenic who could only move when he was literally "plugged in."

Then, she encounters Ritsuko (Miho Tsumiki), a seminar classmate who has become a researcher of Okinawan shamanism. Hearing her story, Ritsuko tells Yuki that, instead of verging on a breakdown, she is discovering powers that give her access to a world denied to ordinary mortals. But though Ritsuko's New Age-y explanation strikes Yuki as more helpful than Kunisada's dryly rational shrink-speak, her friend has a sexual kink of her own and uses Yuki to satisfy it. Finally, Yuki realizes that she must venture into the unknown alone, there to be destroyed -- or redeemed.

Director Nakahara -- who got his start in the Nikkatsu porn factory and has retained an interest in the sexual throughout a career that includes "Sakura no Sono" (1990) "Lie, Lie, Lie" (1997) and "Coquille" (1999) -- would seem an unlikely choice to helm this film. But Nakahara, who majored in religion at the University of Tokyo, not only displays an affinity for this material, but illustrates Yuki's mind-body conflict with an erotic charge more enlightening than the conventional neck-up approach. Using a digital Hi-Vision 24P camera, together with CGI sleight of hand, he and his staff create images that are by turns sensuous and eerie, with the subtlety and presence of standard film.

Unfortunately, Nakahara has also long had an affinity for talky scripts, and "Concent" is no exception. In several scenes, the action stops dead as the characters sit and rattle on -- and one imagines a Hollywood script doctor reaching for his red pencil. That said, Nakahara gets strongly individual performances from his cast, particularly Tsumiki as Ritsuko, who pulls off the difficult trick of being both devious and sympathetic.

But it is Ishikawa, with her air of knowing and not knowing, being in this world and out of it, who keeps us off balance to the end. Is this shaman stuff for real? Or are Yuki's encounters with the dead only a symptom of soul sickness, a metaphor for an inner world coming apart at the seams? "Concent" leaves the answers to us. Sometimes, it's good to remember, a plug is just a plug.

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