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Wednesday, May 29, 2002

Female empowerment with a bullet


Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Tsutomu Kashima
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

How many Japanese men grew up in the television era without going through an idol phase? Who never had a crush on Momoe Yamaguchi, Hiroko Yakushimaru, Kyoko Koizumi or any of the hundreds of other sweet young things who have graced the airways over the decades? Given the billions of yen idols have earned for the agencies that market them, the answer would seem to be "not many."

News photo
Eriko Hatsune and Kaori Manabe in "Bom!"

Yet how many Westerners have written glowing reviews of idol CDs or movies in the local media? Few indeed. The usual attitude is one of scorn. Idols, goes the standard critique, are talentless meat puppets making instantly disposable entertainment for the undiscriminating masses.

This all-idols-are-rubbish critique is not only lazy and wrong, but also points to an unbridgeable gap between Western and Japanese tastes. What one culture considers pleasantly genki (energetic) and kawaii (cute), another finds gratingly -- or perversely -- childish.

Me? I've been here too long, probably, but I've come to accept that idols, like puppies and hamsters, are part of the natural order -- and have their uses. Done well, an idol movie is a tonic for tired blood, middle-aged or otherwise. (I'll leave the Viagra metaphor for others.) There are, I realize, still human beings in the first bloom of youth who look, on the screen anyway, as though they enjoy being alive. An encouraging thought, that.

"Bom!" (yes, only one "o") is an eager-to-please idol movie with a dash of contemporary concerns. Scripted and directed by Tsutomu Kashima ("Ichigo Domei," "Shizanaru Don The Movie"), it serves up the by-now-familiar ingredients of bullying, prostitution and stalking, but in the form of light comedy. It also offers wish-fulfillment of the most delicious -- and dangerous -- kind. Transposed to an American context, its story of girls who take up the gun to extricate themselves from various difficulties would be material for a John Waters black comedy -- or a David Lynch horror show.

Here, where stores sell handguns only as toys for weekend Rambos, it is still in the realm of fantasy (but given the rising tide of crime, only just). In "Bom!" that fantasy takes the form of instant female empowerment, with its heroines winning freedom from their various tormentors by winging bullets at them. The film softens the bang-bang scenes with shots of comically startled reactions or smoking hair, parted by a near miss, but for this American viewer, they were an uncomfortable reminder of how easily kids with guns can decide to pull the trigger, especially if the alternative is total humiliation. What "Bom!" fails to consider, however, are the consequences if the tormentors are not sufficiently impressed -- or if the bullets hit their marks.

The finder of the gun is Kyoko (Eriko Hatsune), a typical teen who one day, out of the blue, is assaulted by a nerdy little salaryman. "I've found you!" he exclaims as he paws her -- a line that baffles Kyoko, who has never seen this guy before in her life. She shakes him off, but is soon pursued by another creep who seems to know her from somewhere. Making her escape, she hides on the grounds of a shrine. Then a gangster, who is also being chased, buries a pistol near her hiding place. When he leaves, she unearths it, crams it into her schoolbag and scampers off.

The next day, she shows her prize to her six closest friends, as they sit on the grass at a bayside park. One, a sloe-eyed toughie named Ranko (Ma'aya Ono), grabs the gun and asks Kyoko if she can borrow it. Ranko, in debt a slithery consumer-finance company president, is paying him back by indulging his strange sexual appetites. Using a little firepower, she intends to get a better deal. One squeeze of the trigger later, Mr. Loan Shark is begging for his life -- and Ranko is a free woman.

Another member of Kyoko's circle, perky, zaftig Mika (Kotoha), next uses the gun to deal with three punks who are harassing her and her wimpy boyfriend. Not as bold as Ranko, she holds her fire until the leader of the punks, a snaggled-toothed geek with bad breath, tries to kiss her in a karaoke club. When she nearly zaps him he pisses his pants (in a spray that resembles a broken water main) and Mika makes her escape.

Two other girls in the group solve similar problems with hot lead, but one mystery remains: a stalker who records Kyoko's every move with a hidden camera and edits her images to his twisted erotic satisfaction for his Web site. The girls finally catch him in the act -- but he is not the monster they were expecting.

Veteran Tsutomu Kashima keeps the mood light and pace brisk, while drawing performances from his seven girls that are more comically pointed than the usual idol-mugging. Ono's budding dominatrix is a stand-out, injecting a jolt of knowing sensuality and bad attitude into what would have otherwise been an over-sugared mix. Popular idol Eriko Hatsune, whose film credits include "Uzumaki" and "Oshikiri," brings an unforced spunk and charm to the role of Kyoko, while withering her attackers with flashes of un-idol-like anger.

In other words, "Bom!" is not your father's idol movie -- though it might be Charlton Heston's.

Note: "Bom!" is the second film of the Garinpeiro ("prospector" in Spanish) project to produce low-budget films with popular entertainment as the aim. The project's seven corporate partners have made a slate of six full-length and three short films showcasing mainly younger talent, all screening at Theatre Ikebukuro. Several events featuring the cast and staff of "Bom!" have been scheduled to the end of the film's run on June 7. For details, check the project's Web site at www.garinpeiro.com

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