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Wednesday, April 3, 2002

Win or lose, it's how you play the game


Rating: * * * *
Director: Kentaro Otani
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Who still believes in the myth of the geisha, that exquisite creature who lives only to brighten the stern face of her lord of the moment? She and her contemporary sisters -- the OLs serving tea with lowered eyes to their male bosses, or teen idols giggling at the mots of a brain-dead MC -- are types many Westerners may feel smugly superior to.

News photo
Asaka Seto in Kentaro Otani's "Travail"

At least they may tend to feel superior until they've been here long enough to notice that the OLs in manga (and more than a few in real life) laugh at their bosses behind their backs. They may also notice that female idols rule tribes of male otaku who not only obediently consume their CDs, but obsess on their queen's every word and costume change. (See Shunji Iwai's darkly brilliant, if self-intoxicated, "Lily Chou Chou no Subete" for an inside view of these otaku in action.)

The fact is, as director Juzo Itami once sagely observed to me, Japanese society is one in which "men are weak and women are strong." The work of Itami's younger colleague, Kentaro Otani, is built on this observation, starting from his 1999 debut feature "Avec Mon Mari (2 + 2)," a study of two intersecting couples whose female halves control the relationship dynamics, to amusing and instructive effect.

The films of Eric Rohmer were an obvious influence in their naturalistic dialogue, unforced pace and careful accretion of details, though Otani brought an individual, if distinctively Japanese, perspective to the eternal theme of sexual power-politics. His men -- a wimpish photographer keeping house for his hardworking lover, and an insecure middle-aged art director carrying on an affair with a free-spirited younger woman -- were comically inept at these politics, but convincingly so. It wasn't hard to find similar types all around (or in the mirror, for that matter).

In his new film, "Travail" (French for "work," as well as the title of a popular employment-listings magazine for women), Otani tackles the same theme from a similar perspective: Two couples again intertwine, with the women doing the tying. This time, however, Otani has a bigger budget, resulting in a more professional look. It also accounts for the bigger names in the cast, including Asaka Seto, a TV talent with a long list of drama-series credits, and Shinya Tsukamoto, the director/actor responsible for the "Tetsuo" films and who recently appeared in Takashi Miike's cult hit "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)." Otani, too, is aiming at a larger audience; the comedy is broader and the ending brighter than in "Avec Mon Mari."

That said, like the best of Rohmer's work, "Travail" gets beneath its characters' skins while seeming to record the minutiae of their lives. Its plot is cleverly constructed, but not overtly mechanical; it doesn't click along so much as flow. The principals are lovably goofy and some of the lines are laugh-out-loud funny -- has Otani been watching "Friends"? -- but they are also capable of conveying deeper emotions than the usual sitcom types. "Friends" has payoffs; "Travail" offers up epiphanies. That doesn't make the film a superior comedy, but it is more than the sum of its gag lines.

Asami (Seto) is a professional player of shogi (Japanese chess), as is her younger sister Rina (Mikako Ichikawa). Married to Kazuya (Tsukamoto), an elite salaryman, Asami is living a comfortable life in a spacious new apartment whose furniture looks as though it has been crafted in a Scandinavian atelier.

Asami is in a slump, however, and one night, after yet another loss, she tells Kazuya that their marriage is the cause. Though Kazuya dotes on Asami (he agreed to postpone their wedding for three years while she pursued her career) he objects and they fall into an argument, which is to be the first of many.

Then Rina come calling with her new boyfriend, Hiroki (Jun Murakami), a struggling musician who is living with her and doing all the household chores. Asami praises Hiroki's progressive attitude and complains that Kazuya does little more than collapse on the sofa, exhausted from work. Meanwhile, Rina is eyeing the gorgeous digs and wishing she were with an earner, not a loser.

The next holiday, Asami goes to the racetrack with a girlfriend, telling Kazuya a fib on her way out the door. There she spots Rina with a former lover, a bearded charmer who looks more prosperous than the woebegone Hiroki. That night, Rina shows up at Asami's apartment alone, saying that she and Hiroki have had a fight. But when she asks her sister to cover for her and tell Hiroki they have been together all day, Asami explodes, calling Rina a liar -- but in explaining why in front of an astonished Kazuya, she exposes herself as one as well.

Enough to say that the sparks continue to fly and the losses at shogi continue, until Asami and Kazuya are on the verge of a breakup -- and Asami is facing demotion to C class, a humiliation she would die to avoid. Then Kazuya gets transferred to the company's one-man office in Indonesia -- a demotion he regards as an effective dismissal -- while Asami is matched against her sister in the game that will decide her fate. What, if anything, can save their marriage and her pride?

Both Asami and Rina are not only deadly serious about their careers -- now a common trope in Japanese films -- but dominate the men in their lives with almost contemptuous ease. As played by Ichikawa, a tall, rangy model-turned-actress, Rina behaves less like Hiroki's lover, more like a tomboyish baby sitter with a balky charge. Though more mature, Seto's Asami is both a steely pro and a bossy big sister -- a combination overwhelming to the wishy-washy Kazuya.

The obvious conclusion is that these women are mismatched -- lions lying down with house cats -- but it's not that simple. Unlike Katharine Hepburn in "Woman of the Year," secretly longing for earthy all-man Spencer Tracy to put her in her place, Asami and Rina can hardly imagine having it any other way. Their will to power is hard wired.

Otani may be having fun with this role-reversal story -- his casting of the short, balding Tsukamoto against Seto is one indication -- but its sexual dynamics are no fantasy. Today's geisha may still pour her lord's sake, but she spends his money at the host club of her choice -- and woe be the host who is slow with his lighter.

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