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Wednesday, Sept. 11, 2002

There is life after death

Ryoma no Tsuma to Sono Otto to Aijin

Rating: * * 1/2
Director: Jun Ichikawa
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 14

Ryoma Sakamoto is among the best-known and best-loved figures of the Bakumatsu Period (1853-1868), between the end of the Shogunate and the start of the Meiji Restoration.

News photo
Kyoka Suzuki and Yosuke Eguchi in "Ryoma no Tsuma to Sono Otto to Aijin"

More of a man of action than an intellectual (he was an expert at kendo and the founder of a shipping company that has been called Japan's first corporation), Ryoma nonetheless supported democratic values of equality and justice to a degree rare in a mid-19th century Japanese leader. Despite his central role in overthrowing the Shogun's government and installing the new Emperor-led regime, he never longed for political power and was assassinated in 1867, at the age of 33.

The sort of man Japan needed then to steer the government away from the authoritarian path it eventually took, Ryoma is today celebrated as a hero, a martyr -- and one of the great what-ifs of Japanese history.

Scriptwriter Koki Mitani, who has directed the hit comedies "Radio no Jikan (Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald)" and "Minna no Ie (Everybody's House)," may have included Ryoma in the title of his latest film, "Ryoma no Tsuma to Sono Otto to Aijin (Ryoma's Wife, Her Husband and Lover)," but he is almost nowhere in it. Instead the focus is on Oryo, the maid who became Ryoma's wife and lived with him for one year before his death.

Why a movie about Ryoma's wife and not Ryoma? For one thing, his story has been told and retold in every medium, to the point of exhaustion. For another, Oryo was both his helpmate and soul mate -- she warned him of one assassination attempt and went with him, in 1866, on what has been described as Japan's first honeymoon. Finally, Oryo was, as the film shows, a free spirit who scandalized public opinion with her free-loving ways after Ryoma's death, instead of spending the rest of her days in chaste, self-denying widowhood.

Director Jun Ichikawa ("Osaka Monogatari," "Tokyo Marigold") films this material with more subtlety than the hyperkinetic Mitani would have, while bringing his unique style of beauty to the screen. Where many directors of TV and film still follow decades-old period-drama conventions, Ichikawa achieves an atmosphere -- call it a clarity of light -- that is neither typically period nor modern, but timeless: glimpses of eternity in ordinary moments.

Unfortunately, the radically different sensibilities of the scriptwriter and director clash more than they mesh, with Ichikawa failing to tame Mitani's excesses or expand his stagey script beyond the proscenium arch. "Ryoma no Tsuma" is something of a ravishing mess, with the cutesy, hammy bustle of the action unfolding in a perfectly realized Japanesque paradise.

The story begins in 1870, 13 years after Ryoma's death. Ryoma's youthful companions and co-conspirators now occupy high positions in the government and military. One of them, Kakubei Sugano (Ki'ichi Nakai) is now a lieutenant commander in the navy who cuts a fine figure in his white summer uniform -- though his behavior is as comically starchy as his clothes. At the urging of Ryoma's old mentor, Kaishu Katsu (Isao Hashizume), he journeys to Tosa (present-day Kochi Prefecture -- where both he and Ryoma were born and raised -- to invite the widowed Oryo (Kyoka Suzuki) to a memorial service in the capital.

When Kakubei arrives, however, he finds Oryo's new husband -- a frantic, frazzled tekiya (street-stall peddler) named Matsubei Nishimura (Noritake Kinashi) -- but no sign of Oryo. Exploring the tumble-down nagaya (row house) she and Matsubei call home, Kakubei goes into shock -- this is not how the widow of a national hero should live!

Stronger jolts are in store, however, when he finally tracks down Oryo -- and discovers she has a lover, Torazo (Yosuke Eguchi). A big, handsome brute of a tekiya, he has a taste for drink and dissipation that Oryo lamentably shares. Shuddering at the scandal if word should get back to Tokyo, Kakubei makes common cause with Matsubei to loosen Oryo from this ruffian's grip. If she persists in disgracing Ryoma's sainted name, the lieutenant declares, he will cut her down with his sword.

The problem is, Kakubei has feelings for Oryo that he is desperate to hide, but she is quick to read. Also, though proud to be Ryoma's widow, she is blithely indifferent to his and Matsubei's pleadings. She likes them both well enough, but finds a happiness with Torazo that she is loath to abandon, even if all the Cabinet ministers on earth should frown. She would, however, leave all three of them in a snap for Ryoma, the love of her life. Without him, she is merely marking time.

As Oryo, Suzuki ("Satorare," "Radio no Jikan") slinks through scene after scene with a privately amused, if vaguely abstracted, air -- think a ditzier version of Marlene Dietrich, in a kimono. She never quite engages with the other characters, remaining a ghost at her own sexual banquet. This remoteness, masquerading as serenity, gives the film whatever pathos it has -- and Ichikawa's camera captures it with faultless precision.

The three principal men clown with the strenuousness expected in a Mitani comedy. Kinashi, a member of the Tunnels comedy duo, tries to steal every scene, prancing about in the background or mugging frantically in the foreground. Ichikawa's hero, Ozu, would have been appalled; Ichikawa moves in for a closeup. He should have stayed with Ryoma's wife -- and left the husband on the cutting-room floor.

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