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Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2002

Amusing, any way you slice it

Sukedachiya Sukeroku

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Kihachi Okamoto
Running time: 88 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Period dramas featuring sword-wielding, top-knotted heroes, which once accounted for half of all Japanese film production, nearly died out in the 1990s. Now the wheel is turning again, with more period dramas of various eras and budgets showing up on screens. Though a few younger directors have tried to reinvent the genre for a new generation, most of the makers of these films are veterans: Masahiro Shinoda, Nagisa Oshima, Kon Ichikawa and now Kihachi Okamoto, whose "Sukedachiya Sukeroku (Vengeance Is Such a Great Business)" is the latest attempt to lure period-drama fans away from the tube.

News photo
Hiroyuki Sanada in "Sukedachiya Sukeroku"

Based on a 1969 television drama that Okamoto wrote and directed, "Sukedachiya" still has a made-for-TV feel, with a running time of 88 minutes, a small cast and a story that mostly unfolds on one street. Like much of Okamoto's work, including his 1992 hit "Rainbow Kids" and his 1995 Western parody "East Meets West," "Sukedachiya" is an action-comedy bursting with the sort of bubbly energy and wacky antics not usually associated with the Golden Age samurai movies. Think an over-caffeinated "Yojimbo," with the Toshiro Mifune character as a happy-go-lucky flake instead of a sardonic schemer.

Though a sukedachiya (avenger-for-hire), Sukeroku (Hiroyuki Sanada) never draws his sword, preferring to humiliate his victims by whacking them with a clothes pole, or tripping and tying them with a rope. But as light in the waraji (sandals) as he may seem, he has become a success of sorts, doing what he loves. For one thing, as a lowly commoner, he gets enormous satisfaction from cutting haughty samurai down to size. For another, he has the daring, resourcefulness and smarts needed to make a go of his unusual occupation. It doesn't take a critical genius to see that he is a stand-in for the eternally irreverent Okamoto.

The story, with its Shakespearean meditations on death that range from the roughly humorous to the stoically stark, no doubt has a personal significance for the 77-year-old director. But in contrast to "Yojimbo," a film that aspires to the sublimely heroic as well the blackly comic, "Sukedachiya" is little more than a sketch. Big themes lurk in its wisp of a plot, but Okamoto can't be bothered to flesh them out. It's as though he's saying to his audience, "Thanks for coming, folks, but this one is for me, a little amusement for my sunset years."

After an opening that comically flashes through the hero's career, the film settles down to its story: Sukeroku returns to his home in Joshu (present-day Gunma Prefecture) after an absence of seven years, first to visit his mother's tiny gravestone on a wind-swept hillside, then to parade his riches before the astonished citizens of his native village.

Instead of admirers, however, he finds a deserted street, patrolled by Taro (Takehiro Murata), a boyhood rival who is now the town constable. Taro tells him the latest news: A high provincial official is getting ready to take revenge against a samurai who killed one of his colleagues seven years ago. Smelling work, Sukeroku tries to get hired as one of the avengers, but is rebuffed by the four men already assigned to the task. Meanwhile his arrival is being noted by Osen (Kyoka Suzuki), Taro's sister and a maid at a local inn, who still carries a torch for him.

Sukeroku wanders over to the shop of the town cooper (Keiju Kobayashi), who is working on a casket, the order of one Katakura (Tatsuya Nakadai), a dignified-looking samurai who turns out to be the avengers' target. The cooper's granddaughter urges Katakura to escape, but he says he has been running long enough -- and goes out to meet his fate. After he leaves, Sukeroku notices a yellow chrysanthemum in the casket, exactly like the one he plucked from his mother's grave. Is it just a coincidence, he wonders, or something more? Then Katakura's fate arrives, in the form of a bullet fired by one of the official's men. Sukeroku now has vengeance of a more personal kind to seek, but he needs allies. Where, among the dozens cowering behind closed doors, is he to find them?

In "Yojimbo," Mifune's sword-for-hire answered a similar question by playing one side against the other. In "Sukedachiya," Hiroyuki Sanada's avenger is more interested in renewing his acquaintance with the lovely Osen than bringing rough justice to the killers of the old samurai. Both are professional tricksters, but one is a man capable of acting honorably, the other is a boy who begins and ends the film as a lovable scamp, forever on the look-out for No. 1.

Which is not to say that Okamoto's view of Sukeroku is entirely light-minded. It is, in fact, idealistic; his hero's absurd resistance to the powers-that-be inspires a rebellion whose tactics may look childish, but -- multiplied by hundreds of rebels -- get results. After a decade-long recession, when all the larger gestures, including the trillions poured into pork-barrel projects, have had little effect, Okamoto's comic call to arms has a certain resonance: Don't stew -- heave the nearest (metaphorical) stone. And as Henry Miller used to say, and Sukeroku would no doubt agree, "Always merry and bright!"

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