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Wednesday, June 19, 2002

Honesty is such a lonely word


Rating: * * * *
Director: Kunitoshi Manda
Running time: 117 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

At my high school in a western Pennsylvania mill town in the 1960s, there were two types of kids: the ones who wanted to get out and move up, and the ones content to stay at home. I was in the former group. Exciting stuff was happening out there and I wanted to be part of it, not rot away in some burg. To me, the stay-at-homes, many of whom went into the local US Steel plant (the "13th grade") after graduation were losers, alien beings.

News photo
Yoko Moriguchi and Shunsuke Matsuoka in Kunitoshi Manda's "Unloved"

When I told this story to novelist Shimpei Tokiwa, another small-town boy who left and never went back, he asked me, "Don't you wish now you had stayed?" Well, no, not really.

But I'm less scornful now of those who found happiness in Ellwood City with family, community -- and some of the best Italian food north of Pittsburgh.

Kunitoshi Manda's "Unloved" examines the striver/stay-at-home divide in its story about an unusual love triangle, with two members on opposite sides of the divide and one in the uneasy middle. The focus of the film, however, is Mitsuko Kageyama (Yoko Moriguchi), who has no interest in getting out, moving up or even getting, period. Amazingly, she's a thirtysomething Japanese woman who owns not a single brand-name anything and couldn't care less about Calvin Klein. Who has worked at the same entry-level job at the local city hall for 13 years and refuses to take a promotion test, despite her boss's repeated requests. (He hates the embarrassment of promoting her juniors past her.) Who likes her cramped, run-down apartment and has no intention of finding something better.

Most directors would present Mitsuko as a lovable eccentric, whose quirks get her into amusing trouble. (See the mousy, money-mad bank teller in Shinobu Yaguchi's "Himitsu no Hanazono," for an example.) Manda, a veteran filmmaker whose credits include the 1996 science-fiction thriller "Uchu Kamotsusen Remnant 6," takes the opposite tack; his Mitsuko is a serious person, who knows what she wants and why she wants it. When the men in her life challenge her core values and try to make her into something she is not, she resists them stubbornly, articulately.

She goes against the grain of the entire culture -- and I found myself admiring her in a way I have admired few movie heroines, Japanese or otherwise. She is not, thank God, clever; instead, she is dangerously honest, with both herself and those around her. Given the strong aversion to that quality here, which gets one labeled "kawaikunai" (literally, "not cute"), no wonder she is the "unloved" of the title.

At the same time, she is not that dull thing -- a flawless role model. Her boyfriends have a point; she is living a gray, crabbed existence, while rejecting every attempt to inject excitement into her life and arguing against ambition and self-improvement. But her boyfriends, we see, are making their arguments for the wrong reasons -- and she is right to reject them.

As the film begins, Mitsuko is drudging away in the city government's Recycling Section, when a report she has written comes to the attention of Eiji Katsuno (Toru Nakamura), a handsome, hard-charging entrepreneur whose company makes software for recycling systems. Used to women who melt at his approach, Katsuno is fascinated by Mitsuko, whose cool, self-contained presence he sees as an interesting sexual challenge. He asks her out, sincerely praises her work -- and one thing leads to another. But after they become lovers, Katsuno's attitude changes; he buys Mitsuko designer clothes and urges her to move into his fancy digs. Then, one night, while Katsuno is jabbering into his cell phone at an expensive restaurant, something snaps; Mitsuko walks out and returns the clothes. She thought that Katsuno respected her for what she was; now she realizes he will only accept her if she lives up to his image of the ideal.

So they break up, but Katsuno's male pride is slow to heal. Mitsuko, meanwhile, starts taking notice of a young musician living in her building, whose day job is working at a warehouse. Hiroshi Shimokawa (Shunsuke Matsuoka) seems to be on her wavelength in a way that Katsuno was not, so she hits on him at a neighborhood convenience store, trembling with excitement at her own boldness. He responds and is soon spending more time in her apartment than his own.

One rainy day, however, Katsuno shows up when Mitsuko is away and grills the flummoxed Hiroshi as though he were interviewing him for a janitor's job. Though Katsuno's face is a mask, he radiates contempt -- and Hiroshi reddens with humiliation. Something snaps in him as well; he becomes angry at not only Katsuno, but also Mitsuko for making him content with his dreary lot, for not sharing his dreams.

Mitsuko, however, declines the role of supportive girlfriend. "You just want to depend on me," she says. True happiness, she tells him, lies in knowing who you really are and what you really want. He is more like her than he is willing to admit. But he fights her version of his truth -- and a battle begins that will define both of their lives.

Manda films this confrontation and much of the rest of "Unloved" in dark, rich tones more reminiscent of Rembrandt than 21st-century Japan, with its ever-present fluorescent lights. This, together with the declamatory speaking styles and statuesque compositions, creates an unworldly, timeless mood, with the characters stripped of everything but their souls.

Starring for the first time in a feature film, Moriguchi plays Mitsuko with an earnestness that burns slowly, but finally blazes. Macho action-star Nakamura at first seems miscast as Katsuno -- his poker face hardly glows with charm -- but Mitsuko, we see, reads his steely surface as a welcome seriousness. Matsuoka's Hiroshi is the most unformed of the three; drifting into middle age without ever growing up. But though he has the look of a loser, from his scraggly hair to his shambling gait, he has a glint in his eyes that says he will not be cowed -- and still wants to live. More importantly, he can love something larger than his own ego. He's all the hero Mitsuko needs -- or in this day and age, is likely to find.

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