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Wednesday, June 12, 2002

The many joys of marriage -- or the lack thereof

Oboreru Hito

Rating: * * *
Director: Naoki Ichio
Running time: 82 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Marriage is a subject that inspires wits to cynicism, usually because their own marriages have made them less than bright-eyed about wedded bliss. The great exception was H.L. Mencken, who wrote many wicked things about marriage while a confirmed bachelor ("A man may be a fool and not know it -- but not if he is married" and "If I ever marry it will be on a sudden impulse, as a man shoots himself"). Then, in 1930, at the age of 50, Mencken married a woman 18 years his junior and by all accounts was a model husband who enjoyed a happy, if brief, marriage. After his wife died in 1935, following a long illness, he remarked, "I was 55 years old before I envied anyone, and then it was not so much for what others had as for what I had lost."

News photo
Shinya Tsukamoto and Reiko Kataoka in "Oboreru Hito"

Which shows that aphorisms about marriage are, to coin an aphorism, bunk. Or that marriage is a mystery known only to those who are partners in it -- and not always then. Younger Japanese directors often use the theme of marriage to discourse on the ways men and women remain strangers to each other, even after the knot is tied. Among the most perceptive is Makoto Shinozaki, whose 1996 "Okaeri" depicts a young wife's descent into madness in the midst of a soul-shriveling isolation, while her husband carouses to all hours. Fortunately, he is at heart a caring sort who leads her back from the edge, while saving the marriage in the bargain.

Not all are so lucky, as Naoki Ichio shows in his debut feature, "Oboreru Hito (A Drowning Man)." The film, admits Ichio, a teacher at Nagoya Visual Arts College, came from the experience of his own failed marriage -- and the two years of self-examination that followed. Rather than the autobiographical melodrama one might expect (Japanese directors of all ages not being inclined to marital farce), "Oboreru Hito" is more of a poetic reimagining that may have naturalistic elements (including its spats and silences), but blurs the distinction between dream and reality.

Ichio and cameraman Noriaki Yamazaki shot "Oboreru Hito" in 16mm in the approved minimalist style, mostly from the middle distance, using long cuts and few camera moves. Set almost entirely in a one-room apartment, the film offers little in the way of cliched action; no faces are slapped, no crockery is broken. The two principals, played by Shinya Tsukamoto ("Travail," "Koroshiya Ichi") and Reiko Kataoka ("Hush!"), carry the burden of the story, with few subplots to serve as distractions.

Technically, the film is a bit on the amateurish side, with its constant traffic noise and its lighting choices that might be charitably described as unconventional (in one key scene, shot facing a large window with light streaming in, Tsukamoto and Kataoka are totally blacked out, like figures in a Balinese puppet play). Also Ichio's script is at times what Hollywood script doctors describe as being "too on the nose": That is, it baldly states thoughts and emotions instead of showing them.

That said, Ichio creates an atmosphere of mind-bending ambiguity, of incredible events unfolding in a matter-of-fact way, that heightens tension more than a straightforward narrative might. (Kiyoshi Kurosawa does something similar in his horror and science-fiction films, to stranger effect.) He also keeps the focus where it belongs; on the husband's disturbing revelation that he wants his wife dead and how that revelation destroys his marriage, despite his professed love and devotion. He is truly the title's "Drowning Man."

The nightmare begins with the husband, Tokio (Tsukamoto) waking from a nap to find his wife Kumiko (Kataoka) apparently drowned in the bathtub. He calls 119, stops and, when an operator calls him back, says that everything is all right, though it most certainly isn't. He hyperventilates, weeps, takes Kumiko out of the tub and tries, unsuccessfully, to revive her. He then proceeds to get drunk and pass out. We see a black-and-white shot of Kumiko in funeral attire walking alone in the countryside. "I wouldn't mind dying if you could dream after death," she says in a voice-over. "It wouldn't even have to be an interesting dream."

The next morning, however, Kumiko is very much alive, to Tokio's shock and relief. "I had a ridiculous dream," he says over coffee, smiling. Or was it? Tokio is not sure -- and that uncertainty eats away at him. To his disordered senses, Kumiko's skin feels cold, the apartment smells of rotting flesh. When he reveals these thoughts to Kumiko, she begins to wonder, to withdraw. Desperate for answers, Tokio confides in a friend, who tells him he must be imagining everything. If only he could believe it.

He suspects that Kumiko's feelings for him have changed. He berates her for serving sashimi -- a food he knows she hates. "I was trying not to be selfish," she says. "Don't put yourself out," he replies testily. She ends up grilling the sashimi, while her trust in her husband slowly goes up in flames.

The madness escalates; Tokio installs a hidden camera to track her every move, hides air fresheners around the room to kill the bad smell that only he can perceive. Then one night he finds his friend in the tub, another drowned corpse. He goes through the same motions he went through with Kumiko, right down to the hyperventilating, to the same embarrassing result.

After this second false alarm, the friend tells Kumiko that Tokio is wracked with guilt for not calling an ambulance that fateful night. "Husbands and wives are a big influence on each other," he intones. "If one becomes strange, the other one becomes strange as well."

Kumiko grows cold in the spirit, if not the flesh, to Tokio's discomfiture. His marriage is about to go down for the third time.

Tsukamoto, a veteran director whose new film "Rokugatsu no Hebi (A Snake of June)" also examines a disintegrating relationship, plays Tokio less as a man obsessed than one who is fundamentally self-centered and immature. He is like a kid who treats living things as toys -- and becomes upset when they demonstrate a will of their own. No wonder he wants his most precious toy of all to stay in the box -- even it happens to be a coffin.

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