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Wednesday, March 13, 2002

A wash cycle set on delicate


Rating: * * * *
Director: Jun'ichi Mori
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Hollywood stars often try to advance their careers by portraying people with diseases or disabilities, from autism (Dustin Hoffman in "Rain Man") to schizophrenia (Russell Crowe in "A Beautiful Mind"). Even without winning an Academy Award (Crowe's chances looks iffy as stories about his character's alleged anti-Semitism are surfacing), the stars get to demonstrate their acting chops and, more importantly, broaden their appeal, so they're not forever stuck playing variations of the character that made them famous.

News photo
Yosuke Kubotsuka in "Laundry"

In Japan, it's harder for an actor to stretch once an image is fixed in the public mind. If Crowe were Japanese, he might spend most of his career in an "L.A. Confidential" tough-guy mode. Thus hot young star Yosuke Kubotsuka (or his agent) was smart to sign for Jun'ichi Mori's "Laundry" soon after making a big splash in "Go," where he played a quick-fisted Korean kid in a Japanese high school. Watching his performance, which earned him a Japan Academy Award, I was reminded of Yusaku Matsuda, the charismatic star of the 1970s and '80s known mainly for his cool-dude action roles.

In "Laundry," however, Kubotsuka is Teru, a 20-year-old with a damaged brain (the result, he tells us in a voice-over narration, of an early encounter with an open manhole), who lives with his grandmother and keeps an eye on her laundromat. Planting himself on a chair outside the place, he observes the various eccentrics who flow through, including an old man who mumbles to himself, a housewife who bores him with her endless photos of flowers and a pro boxer who has yet to win a bout in 18 tries and crawls into a dryer to pout all night after his latest loss.

Then a new customer attracts his attention: a girl with fashion-model looks and a distracted air who walks off leaving a dress in a dryer. Teru follows her back to her apartment and returns it. She asks him up for tea.

Romance blooms? Not quite. After being unceremoniously dumped by her mailman lover -- he returned to a wife he had neglected to tell her about -- Mizue (Koyuki) shoplifts stuff from stores and dumps it into a mailbox on his route. Far from being sweet, however, this unusual form of revenge is a symptom of soul sickness. In her own way, Mizue is as damaged as Teru -- and a new relationship, sexual or otherwise, is the last thing she wants. Soon after meeting him, she returns to her home in the countryside, there to lie in bed all day, a worry to her mother and an annoyance to her sullen younger sister.

Teru, however, can't get her out of his mind -- and has another piece of her laundry to return. Hitchhiking to her hometown, he is picked up by Sari (Takeshi Naito), a no-nonsense middle-aged man who gets right to the point. "You're in love with this girl, aren't you?" he asks. Sari happens to be right, but what can a guy who never learned to tie his own shoes do about it?

The Japanese affection for the sort of love story seen in "Laundry" goes back to Chaplin's "City Lights" (which they much prefer to his more satirical "Modern Times"). The Tramp's selfless love for the blind flower girl has inspired countless directors here to produce their own versions of the film's "a smile and a tear" formula. Yoji Yamada was the most successful, with his enduringly popular Tora-san series about a wandering peddler who was forever falling in love but never got the girl, while in the past decade several younger directors attempted to update the formula for women who prefer their romances zipless, including Yoshimitsu Morita ("Kitchen," 1989), Tomoyuki Furumaya ("Kono Mada wa Kimi no Mono," 1994) and Tetsuo Shinohara ("Tsuki to Kyabetsu," 1996).

The latter films mostly ranged from the insufferable to the exasperating. In "Laundry," Mori, an award-winning director of TV commercials making his feature debut, doesn't completely avoid the feyness endemic to these films: Teru wears a conical cap, knitted for him by Granny, that makes him look like a walking, breathing cartoon character. (One imagines a junior high school girl dangling a smaller version from her keitai). But Mori has a drier, quirkier sensibility than his predecessors -- "Bagdad Cafe" meets "Edward Scissorhands" -- while his script has memorable lines, ingenious twists and an ending that flows from everything that has come before, without being thumpingly obvious.

He also has Kubotsuka, who resists the urge to flaunt his virtuosity. Instead he simplifies, expressing the essence of Teru, including his neediness and hard-headedness, with economy and precision -- and none of the usual bombast and treacle. As Mizue, former model Koyuki may be a bit too much the sensitive wimp, but is a believable kleptomaniac (she has the right hard, glinty eye). Meanwhile, Naito -- a ferociously articulate TV comedian and MC -- provides a refreshing balance to these two unworldly types as the straight-talking, if comically strange, Sari.

Though packaged as an offbeat entertainment for a mainly female audience (two beautiful misfits find each other!), "Laundry" manages to be something more as well. Even if you don't buy its romance, its view of the world as a place where character and circumstance are not necessarily predestined is a nice counter to the more fashionable fatalism. "Laundry" is a cleansing film -- but not the same old soap.

Japanese movies present tough challenges for non-native speakers, with characters shouting, muttering and cracking jokes, often in dialect. "Laundry," however, is mostly pitched at the level of the intermediate language learner, with simple, clearly enunciated dialogue in hyojungo (standard Japanese). If you've never seen a Japanese movie without subtitles -- try this one.

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