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Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2002

Village of the financially damned

Kin'yu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito

Rating: * * * *
Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 7 at Shinjuku Joy Cinema

Most movies don't have a lot to do with the adult world we live in. Many Japanese filmmakers assume it's cooler -- and certainly better box office -- to make yet another dark, edgy essay on the life of a hit man. Who, they reason, wants to see a film about ordinary people working at their daily grinds, dealing with their sulky teenage kids and struggling to pay their friendly local loan shark?

News photo
Yu Tokui, Show Aikawa and Shiro Sano in "Kin'yu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito"

But Yuji Aoki has made a fortune with comics about such mundaneness, including his hit "Kabachitare" and "Naniwa Kin'yudo (The Naniwa Way of Finance)" series. His latest is "Kin'yu Hametsu Nippon (Japan Financial Collapse)," which appears in Gorakuo magazine and has now been made into a film by Takashi Miike: "Kin'yu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito (Japan Financial Collapse: The People of Togen Village)."

Best-known abroad for cinematic outrages like "Audition" and "Koroshiya Ichi (Ichi the Killer)," Miike also has a more conventionally comic and humanistic side, as shown in such films as "Chugoku no Tojin (Bird People in China)" and "Tengoku Kara Kita Otoko-tachi (Guys From Paradise)."

In "Togenkyo no Hitobito" Miike comes as close as he probably ever will to being his generation's Yoji Yamada -- that veteran warmer of hearts, whose Tora-san series made its peddler hero an icon of common-man values. It's not as though he's gone soft and squishy; a Miike movie wouldn't be a Miike movie without blackly humorous, graphically explicit scenes of kinky sex and brutal violence -- and "Togenkyo no Hitobito" has a few.

The film is clear and precise about the realities of life as lived by the millions who are just one uncollected bill away from ruin, a paycheck or two away from poverty, as well as by the human slime who try to exploit them. But mainly it's a clever romp, with financially savvy Robin Hoods outwitting malefactors of great wealth, not to mention garden-variety hustlers and thieves.

The film begins, as so many business news stories do these days, with a bankruptcy, this time of an Osaka supermarket chain. The news hits the small printer of the chain's flyers especially hard -- if the 10 million yen check from their biggest client bounces, the company is history. The printing company president, the hyper Umemoto (Yu Tokui), goes to beg for mercy from the supermarket magnate (Maro Akaji), but the old rogue protests that he doesn't have a yen to his name, even as his tarty young wife luxuriates in their gaudily furnished mansion. In a panic, Umemoto returns home, where his wife has been getting a tongue-lashing from her brother and sister-in-law, who are guarantors of the printing company's debt -- and are consequently in deep doo-doo as well. Umemoto goes next to his lawyer, who advises bankruptcy court. He would rather die first.

Umemoto is making careful preparations for gassing himself in his car when he is rudely interrupted by an attack on a nearby homeless camp by a gang of chinpira (punks). Umemoto rushes one of the injured homeless folk to the hospital -- and afterward is warmly welcomed into their camp, which they call Togen Village, by Kuwata (Shiro Sano), a writer who is down on his luck, and the village "mayor" (Show Aikawa), a mysterious, if friendly, chap wearing shades and an Afro wig. Overcome by the kindness of these strangers, Umemoto pours out his tale of woe. Moved, Kuwata and the mayor vow to help him save his company.

The first step in their business recovery plan is to have Umemoto and his family abscond to escape persistent creditors. The second is to raise gap-financing by selling off everything not nailed down and pressuring a fat, sleazy loan shark to extend credit. The third step is to run an elaborate scam on the supermarket magnate and to use the money raised to make a quick killing on the stock market.

Watching all this play out is great fun. Masakuni Takahashi's script moves the story along briskly while carefully explaining the various subterfuges and stratagems. Miike's direction is uncharacteristically unobtrusive, with a relaxed, unsprung rhythm that flows rather than pounds. Nonetheless, he is still the provocateur with the untamed id, who likes to give the audience a jolt of strangeness every now and then to keep it alert -- and remind it who is directing.

Tokui is engagingly frantic as Umemoto. A small, wiry type, he acts with every highly charged fiber out of a deep-seated need -- call it desperation -- that is touching as well as funny. He is not just a comedian doing shtick, but a man in a whirlpool, paddling for dear life as his life vest deflates.

Aikawa, the best tough guy in Japanese movies, and Sano, the best geek, work well together as Umemoto's saviors. Aikawa plays entertainingly with his image -- swaggering and glowering to cow the bad guys, while well aware he looks absurd in that Afro wig. Meanwhile, Sano may look convincingly scruffy and beat as the writer, but takes an unforced joy in gaming his opponents that gives his character a satisfying upward arc.

I especially liked the way the film walks the audience through the dirty details of the scam -- the sign of a good caper movie. The art of printing has seldom looked so fascinating -- but why add a spoiler? Let it suffice to say, "Togenkyo no Hitobito" is a welcome ray of light in the recessionary gloom.

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