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Wednesday, May 8, 2002

Breaking through the big blue bubble

Totsunyu Seyo! Asama Sanso Jiken

Rating: * * * 1/2
Director: Masato Harada
Running time: 133 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Not long ago, the big-scale, high-octane thriller was something of a lost art in the Japanese film industry, which preferred to leave that kind of risky, if rewarding, filmmaking to Hollywood. Then in 1998, a TV director, Katsuyuki Motohiro, cleaned up at the box office with "Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)," a comic thriller based on a popular TV show that explored the inner workings of the Japanese police.

News photo
Koji Yakusho (center) in Masato Harada's "Totsunyu Seyo! Asama Sanso Jiken"

Not long after, veteran director Masato Harada ("Bounce KoGALS," "Kamikaze Taxi") had a hit with "Kinyu Fushoku Retto Jubaku (Spellbound)," whose subject was corruption in Japanese business and government. Its heroes may have looked and talked like bankers and bureaucrats, but they moved in a world of intrigue, filmed with a visual flash and breathless pace more reminiscent of "Mission Impossible" than a bank board meeting.

Now Harada is back with "Totsunyu Seyo! Asama Sanso Jiken (The Choice of Hercules)," another thriller with an unwieldy title but a large ambition to entertain as well as inform. The film, about the 10-day police siege of radicals at a mountain lodge in Karuizawa in 1972, is something of a Japanese "Black Hawk Down," with a large cast of uniformed heroes, a shadowy enemy, a staccato, you-are-there style -- and little context for the on-screen action.

In shooting their films almost entirely from within the bubble of a given organization, be it the police or the military, Harada and "Black Hawk Down" director Ridley Scott have excluded most talk of larger issues. Their heroes are focused on a mission, not on political motives. For the cops behind the barricades at the Asama mountain lodge, the radicals shooting at them with hunting rifles are simply "hannin" (criminals). Their job is to arrest them, with the minimum loss of life on both sides, period.

This has the ring of truth, but it's a narrow truth. In the world beyond the barricades, larger issues, both political and cultural, did exist and did matter to more than a few. The Asama radicals emerged from the zeitgeist of the 1960s, when thousands of otherwise ordinary Japanese kids took to the streets to protest the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty or the war in Vietnam, while challenging the values of their elders in everything from the length of their hair and skirts to their choice of occupations and marriage partners. Little of this appears in the film: The radicals have no voice, the media are mostly a carping distraction.

That said, "Totsunyu Seyo!" is quite good about describing what goes on inside the bubble called the Japanese police. Based on a memoir by Atsuyuki Sassa, a former top Cabinet security affairs officer who directed the Asama Sanso siege, the film has the feel of closely observed reality, in everything from the density of the cop jargon to the inner turmoil of the hero, played by Koji Yakusho, the Japanese Tom Hanks. When Yakusho's Sassa starts flipping out from the stress -- making funny faces at the window during a rancorous meeting or maniacally conducting an imaginary symphony orchestra on the stairwell after a grueling day in the trenches -- you understand what he is feeling because the film has made the caldron he is inhabiting so present and particular.

We foreigners often wonder why Japanese sweat to get into the right universities so they can get into the right government agencies. It sounds like a pretty boring life, shuffling papers in one of those monolithic Kasumigaseki buildings, while riding the deathly slow promotion escalator. But as Harada shows us in the opening scenes, the upper reaches of the Japanese police bureaucracy are an exclusive club, whose atmosphere is surprisingly cozy and relaxed. Infighting and backbiting exist, but everyone is from the same elite educational background, is on the same career path and enjoys a job security unrivaled outside the British royal family. No wonder Sassa breezes through the office with a cat-that-ate-the-canary smile on his face.

But even top cops with the National Police Agency (Keisatsucho) have to deal with that unpleasant reality called crime, especially in the early 1970s, when radical sects were busy torturing, bombing and otherwise raising havoc. These crimes culminated in February 1972, when fugitive Red Army members invaded a mountain lodge in Karuizawa called Asama Sanso, took the wife of its proprietor hostage and shot at the local cops who came to arrest them.

Crusty NPA chief Gotoda (Makoto Fujita) asks Sassa, who has foreign training and extensive experience in dealing with student protests, to take charge of the police siege. Sassa balks, saying that he is too junior for the assignment, but Gotoda insists; he wants the best man -- and Sassa is it. "You must make the choice of Hercules," he says, referring to the Greek hero who performed 12 labors assigned by the god Apollo, all of them considered impossible.

It would be easy to simply blast the radicals out, but Gotoda gives Sassa six conditions to fulfill, among which are to kill no one (dead radicals become martyrs), respond to no demands (appeasement will lead to more radical attacks) and take no chances with police lives. Hercules had it easy.

When Sassa arrives on the scene, he finds he has to tread carefully with not only the local cops, who view his presence as a bureaucratic vote of no confidence, but police from the Metropolitan Police Department (Keishicho) who have been dispatched to the scene. As if this clash of egos weren't bad enough, he quickly learns that conventional methods are not going to dislodge his opponents, whose only response to tearful pleas and tear gas is bullets. New tactics are necessary, including the use of a water-spraying armored car that looks like a relic from the battle of the Somme. But as the days wear on and police casualties mount, criticism of the siege intensifies. Finally, Sassa and his colleagues decide that they have to attack, come what may. Totsunyu seyo! (Break through!)

The last 30 minutes are as intense and chaotic as anything in "Saving Private Ryan," if not as violent. The cops who descend into the lodge to battle the radicals in the gloom and smoke are terrified for their lives -- but they get the job done anyway. Not Hercules, perhaps, but heroes nonetheless.

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