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Wednesday, July 17, 2002

Only a real ojosama knows her true worth

Warau Kaeru

Rating: * * * * 1/2
Director: Hideyoshi Hirayama
Running time: 96 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

It's unfair but true that some people float through life, taking their ease, while others have to paddle like crazy just to keep their heads above water. Ojosama -- the pampered daughters of Japan's upper and upper-middle classes, and those who emulate them -- often find themselves in the previous category. They are the local version of Rachel Green of "Friends," before she clipped her credit cards and started waitressing at the coffee shop. Secure in the knowledge that Papa or Hubby will always pick up the tab, blissfully deaf to feminist calls to take up stressful careers, they seem, to us struggling earthlings, to be above the clouds, swathed in Prada, forever journeying to that great gallery opening at the end of the rainbow.

News photo
Kyozo Nagatsuka and Nene Otsuka in "Warau Kaeru"

But what happens when an ojosama is brought to earth, when Hubby turns out to be, not an indulgent underwriter of plastic, but a philanderer, a debtor and, finally, a fugitive? In Hideyoshi Hirayama's finely tuned comedy of manners, "Warau Kaeru (The Laughing Frog)," the heroine's response to such a catastrophe is true to ojosama form.

"We are all in the gutter," Oscar Wilde once remarked, "but some of us are looking at the stars." Ryoko (Nene Otsuka) may be living in her parent's countryside villa after her banker husband's disappearance, with 85 million yen in debt, but she is looking out for No. 1 and doing a decent job of it, thank you. The stars she has little need of, given that she still has her youth, her looks and that ineffable ojosama air of entitlement. On the Titanic, she would be standing at the rail with a sweetly superior smile, certain of getting the best seat on the first lifeboat.

When hubby Ippei (Kyozo Nagatsuka) shows up, looking like a tramp, she promptly crumples in a ladylike faint -- that fail-proof feminine defense mechanism of Victorian novels. It works in this case as well, and when Ryoko comes to, it is as though panic never entered her well-ordered mind. Coolly, she tells Ippei to put his dirty underwear in the washing machine and orders him to hide in the storeroom when visitors come.

In the wall of what is to be his new home, Ippei discovers a peephole and soon learns several distressing facts. One is that Ryoko has a lover, Yoshizumi (Jun Kunimura), the father of a girl she is tutoring. ("How is Daddy in bed?" the sassy kid asks. "He's terrific," Ryoko answers without batting an eyelash.) Another is that the local cops think Ippei is in the neighborhood. ("He's probably at his girlfriend's place in Yokohama," Ryoko helpfully tells one.)

Yoshizumi (Jun Kunimura) arrives on the third day of Ippei's stay. A carver of arty gravestones, Yoshizumi is all that the disgraced and rumpled Ippei is not: charming, neatly turned out, successful at his chosen profession and a wonderful cook. Even Ryoko's raffish mother (Izumi Yoshimura) likes him. "He's loaded with sex appeal," she says with a knowing grin, as poor Ippei chokes on a pit.

Mom, it turns out, has a new man herself, an antique dealer who is a spry 58, but no match in the sack for her dear, departed husband. "He was like a symphony orchestra," she reminisces, rhapsodically.

Ippei makes Ryoko promise not to bed Mr. Gravestone until he is out of the house. But when Yoshizumi shows up and administers a soothing foot massage, Ryoko weakens. Ippei, bursting from the beers he downed to prepare for this ordeal, pees a torrent into a bucket, as Ryoko's moans merge with the croaking of the frogs in the pond. A symphony indeed -- and not the last, frogs croak similar commentary throughout the film. Thus, I suppose, the unusual title.

A veteran who has tackled everything from kiddy horror ("Gakko no Kaidan") to serious drama ("Ai o Kou Hito"), Hirayama resists the temptation to turn this material into a sitcom. Instead of feeding his characters comic zingers, he quietly but relentlessly peels away their evasions, delusions and lies.

Based on the novel "Toriko" by Yoshinaga Fujitsu and scripted by Izuru Narushima, "Warau Kaeru" is closely observant about the way society sorts out its winners and losers, in relationships as in everything else. Ippei believes he can get back into the game, even though he lost his touch ages ago. Ryoko, though all soft, yielding femininity on the surface, is calculating every move with an icy inner logic, like Nomo facing the top of the order with the tying run on base. Little does Ippei know that he is the runner -- and that the pitcher's pick-off move is quicker than his shaky legs.

Kyozo Nagatsuka, who starred in Hirayama's best previous film, "The Chugakko Kyoshi," restrains his usual strong on-screen personality as Ippei, not so much as to render the character a nullity, but enough to indicate the devastation wrought on his masculine pride. Though pathetic, his Ippei is not yet a clown (the operative word being "yet"). Nene Otsuka, a model and TV drama actress whose scattering of film credits includes Takashi Miike's "Tengoku Kara Kita Otokotachi (Guys From Paradise)," is effective both as an object of desire and an agent of change (representing one client).

The excellent supporting cast is headed by Yoshimura, an idol star of the 1950s who is making her first screen appearance in 15 years, and Kunimura, one of the most accomplished character actors now working and whose credits include Miike's "Audition" and Hirayama's "Ai o Kou Hito."

If anything, Hirayama dials down the comic spirits of this cast a touch too far. But the resulting ambiguity of tone -- is it a comedy or drama? -- keeps us guessing about Ippei's fate until the end, when the entire cast of characters descends on the villa for a get-together and final reckoning. Some directors would play this climactic scene for a clever twist; Hirayama opts for the more difficult existential chill.

Henry James, that expert on the 19th-century American version of ojosama and master chronicler of social subterfuge and cruelty, could scarcely have told it better, though I wonder what he would have made of the froggy Greek chorus.

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