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Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2002

The many sundry affairs of the heart

Kasei no Canon

Rating: * * *
Director: Shiori Kazama
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Affairs with married men are almost always a bad thing, aren't they? Advice columnists are forever getting letters with some variation of the plaint "He told me he'll leave his wife, but (insert excuse)." The correspondent usually feels like a third wheel, spinning away in the air while her boyfriend gets on with his life. As Ann Landers used to say, "Wake up and smell the coffee, honey."

News photo
Makiko Kuno and Mami Nakamura in "Kasei no Canon"

But who listens? Not the men. The adulterous escapades of Bill Clinton, Ralph Giuliani, Jack Welch, Bob Greene and, the latest addition to a long roll call, John Major indicate either that more married men are doing the dirty deed than when Ann start writing umpteen years ago -- or that they are less successful at covering it up. Japan is no exception, as Shiori Kazama shows in "Kasei no Canon (The Mars Canon)," a drama about a love triangle that turns into a quadrangle, with one of the sides being a 43-year-old married man.

Instead of farce, with its desperate lies and narrow escapes, or melodrama, with its towering rows and strenuous tussles between the sheets, Kazama and her scriptwriters, Tomoko Ogawa and Shotaro Oikawa, have gone for the low-key, off-beat but emotionally realistic approach. No one makes a quick exit out a back window, no one flings crockery. Instead, barbs are delivered with smiles and real feelings get sidestepped until they can no longer be ignored.

It all plays as it might in life, including the fact that the women at the center of this storm -- the one for whom the other three (or for a while, four) are contending -- is stuck in a dead-end job at the age of 29 and looks as though she has not had a good night's sleep in months. She seems average to the point of dullness, save for her mysterious ability to get people to fall in love with her.

This is irritating, but also rings true, both in and outside the context of the film. The woman in question, Kinuko (Makiko Kuno), invests her affair with a large amount of meaning, but seems in no hurry to marry. The former quality is flattering, the latter, simply convenient for her married lover, Kohei (Fumiyo Kohinata). But though smooth and charming -- a negative word seldom leaves his lips -- he is not a rogue in the usual sense; instead he has a genuine affection for Kinuko. Not that he'll leave his wife (though we never see her face) or, more importantly, his young daughter for her. He is also risk adverse, seeing Kinuko only on Tuesdays -- a day she holds sacred.

One day, she runs into Hijiri (Mami Nakamura), a soft-spoken but intense younger woman who was fired from the ticket agency where Kinuko works, and Hijiri's roommate, Manabe (Kee), a fast-talking free spirit who sells New Agey stuff on the street and hustles women at every opportunity. (Hijiri introduces Manabe, only half jokingly, as "a scam artist.")

These three soon become inseparable, with Kinuko hanging out at Hijiri and Manabe's apartment and playing with her large game and toy collection. (Intended as an expression of Hijiri's winningly girlish personality, this collection may send another message to foreign viewers.) Meanwhile, Hijiri is trying, without much subtlety or success, to make Kinuko break off with Kohei. When Kinuko comes down with a fever, Hijiri assiduously nurses her and, when Kohei pays a rare non-Tuesday visit, tells him to go away.

After Kinuko recovers, Hijiri makes a confession that the "more alert" will have seen a long time coming: She in love with Kinuko and not just as friend. Kinuko is shocked -- and accuses Hijiri of deceiving her. Undeterred, Hijiri moves in next door to her beloved and even tries to send a tell-all letter to Kohei's wife, using his daughter as a messenger. Kohei, who is no fool, intercepts it -- and confronts his rival. "This kind of thing happens all the time, doesn't it?" he says, playing the sophisticate, but he bluntly tells Hijiri that she can never have Kinuko. "I know her better than you," he explains. Her rejoinder: "I will win."

Despite this and other moments of soap-operatic drama, "Kasei no Canon" unfolds at the same deliberate pace and with the same interior focus as Kazama's previous feature, "Fuyu no Kappa" (How Old Is the River?)" (1995). With its long cuts, few close-ups and dialogue that flows with a naturalistic lack of shaping and point, the film is squarely within the Japanese indie mainstream. That mainstream style, however, has become something of a cliche -- and "Kasei no Canon" has its share of hackneyed tropes, including the semiobligatory sensitive-souls-staring-up-at-the-stars scene.

Where Kazama differs from many of contemporaries is her close observation of women's lives, including the pain and fatigue of an affair that is going nowhere. Also, instead of pounding in the message that married guys are a Big Mistake, she shows the joys, as well as the inevitable sorrows, of cheating, while neither blaming nor defending the participants. She even gives us reason for liking her heroine, after first presenting her as a woman on the verge of middle age, who is losing both her looks and what may be her last chance at love.

Neither, it turns out, is true. Without the bags under her eyes and her semipermanent air of gloom, Makiko Kuno's Kinuyo begins to glow -- and we can see her with Kohei and Hijiri's eyes. That obscure object of desire, it turns out, is not entirely an illusion.

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