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Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2002

Takeshi Kitano has taught you well



Chicken Heart

Rating: * * * 1/2
Japanese title: Chicken Heart
Director: Hiroshi Shimizu
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Japanese
Current showing

When Takeshi Kitano started directing films, beginning with "Kono Otoko Kyobo ni Tsuki (Violent Cop)" in 1989, he went for punches over punch lines. In spite of being one of the most popular comedians on Japanese television, Kitano preferred to play a tough guy on the big screen, whose sense of humor was black and who usually went down in a self-destructive blaze.

News photo
Kiyoshiro Imawano, Hiroyuki Ikeuchi and Matsuo Suzuki in Hiroshi Shimizu's "Chicken Heart"

When he finally turned his attention to comedy, in 1995's "Minna Yatteruka (Getting Any?)," the result was closer to "Dumb and Dumber" than Dirty Harry. The film's half-witted hero, played by longtime "Kitano Army" member Duncan, embarks on a futile quest to get laid, by any means necessary -- and ends up as a happy voyeur.

Veteran Kitano assistant director Hiroshi Shimizu has absorbed both strands of his boss's comic mind: the black and the barmy. His 1998 directorial debut "Ikinai" was a comedy about a bus tour for losers whose last scheduled stop is a plunge over a cliff -- the culmination of a suicide-for-insurance-money scam. His new film "Chicken Heart," which screened in Critics' Week at this year's Cannes Film Festival, also features characters at the bottom of the social barrel, but its take on their predicament is lighter -- and goofier.

The film echoes Kitano's minimalist style, with its deadpan economy and inventiveness. Despite the influences, however, Shimizu's touch in "Chicken Heart" is less mannered -- and often funnier than that of his boss. Blasphemy? Maybe, but Kitano, whose big-screen gags tend toward sadistic pranks and lame pratfalls, often stands apart from his performers, playing the ringmaster (or whip-cracking animal trainer). Shimizu is more willing to let his cast wing it -- with hilarious results. His heartwarming climax falls a bit flat but does not dull affection for his three heroes, particularly Matsuo Suzuki's Maru -- a nerd born of a brilliantly unhinged comic mind, who stumbles away with the film.

The ostensible focus, however, is Iwano (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi), a former professional boxer who has been reduced, at age 27, to being a nagurareya -- a human punching bag who lets drunken businessmen take potshots at him for cash. (A real nagurareya was Shimizu's inspiration for the character.) He is assisted by Maru, a 36-year-old former teacher who serves as timekeeper, and Sada (Kiyoshiro Imawano), a 53-year-old drifter who collects money from customers. The trio live in the same run-down rooming house and, after hours, they drink together at an outdoor stall run by a mysterious old man (photographer Nobuyoshi Araki) who fixes electronic gadgets when he is not evading the police. (He has a neon "bar" sign but no bar license -- or, for that matter, any other kind of license.)

All three have day jobs: Iwano washes graffiti off walls (with occasional help from his pals), Maru helps his elderly uncle mind his hat store (while sitting in front of it blowing bubbles), and Sada hands out promotional packets of tissue to passersby (or simply chucks them at the uncooperative). All three want something better -- they just don't know what.

Iwano's businessman brother offers him a real job, but Iwano doesn't want a responsibility he can't escape. Maru tries to better his lot with lucky charms and colors, with little success. Sada, the freest spirit of the lot, dreams of repairing a broken-down boat and heading out to the open sea, but can't get the engine to start.

Three hopeless cases? Not quite. Each, in his own roundabout way, makes progress toward something or other (it's hard to call it a goal), albeit with fits and starts that would be the despair of a self-help guru.

Iwano's case is supposedly the most serious, but his babe-magnet looks keep him in the running, even after he has dropped out of the race. When a bored young woman (Misayo Haruki) from Osaka engages him as a board game partner, the question of whether he will make it takes on a different nuance -- but one not terribly interesting. If the film were truly his, it would be another sweet-but-sad exercise in post-adolescent angst. Fortunately, it is not.

Instead it also belongs to veteran rocker Imawano, who makes no attempt to act but gets laughs anyway as the wry, dry, unconventional Sada. Whether slapping paint on his boat or tossing off quips at the bar, Sada couldn't care less what impression he is making. But his brusqueness has a charm and his loneliness a pathos that make him more than a one-note character.

Suzuki is the film's real find, however. A veteran stage performer who has suddenly become hot property (with roles in "Koroshiya Ichi," "Sekai no Owari to Iunano Zakkaten," "Drive" and "Totsunyu Seyo Asama Sanso Jiken"), he plays Maru as a child in a man's body -- a goofy, gawky klutz who, in classrooms of a more innocent day, would have been a running invitation to a spitball volley. Suzuki's comedy seems to come from a personal place -- his inner Nerd -- and bubbles to the surface with no filters. It's a natural spring of wackiness. Points of comparisons include Rowan "Mr. Bean" Atkinson, minus the obnoxiousness.

In its third act, as the trio embrace their respective fates, "Chicken Heart" takes a serious turn. Even death makes an appearance, though more gently than it would in a Kitano film. The concluding moral: Everything changes, but the spirit, nutty or otherwise, endures. A Buddhist thought, perhaps, but one that, in Shimizu's hands, translates into a universally appealing comedy.



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