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Wednesday, Oct. 30, 2002

You can run, but you can't ignore

Amidado Dayori

Rating: * *
Director: Takashi Koizumi
Running time: 128 minutes
Now showing

Sometimes, when I'm feeling overwhelmed by the ugliness of whatever Japanese cityscape I happen to be in, I try to imagine how the place might have looked in 1890. No concrete, no wires, no moldy stucco in cancerous shades of gray and brown. Instead just wood, straw, clay, bamboo and other natural materials that were once as abundant and cheap as dirt. Instantly, it becomes beautiful -- the fairyland of turn-of-the-century author Lafcadio Hearn's just-off-the-boat ravings (though Hearn left out the poverty, stink and disease).

News photo
Akira Terao and Kanako Higuchi in "Amidado Dayori"

Japan's long journey from garden spot to eyesore is the subject of Alex Kerr's brilliant, impassioned book "Dogs and Demons." Kerr's despairing assessment -- that the political, economic and cultural forces behind uglification are too powerful to stop -- is hard to argue with.

Right outside my window, workers are building new condos on a riverside plot that local residents (including this one) futilely petitioned be made into a park. But money talked, city officials walked and now concrete is being poured.

Takashi Koizumi's new film, "Amidado Dayori," about a middle-aged couple who find a second chance at life in a remote mountain village, would seem to be on Kerr's side, with its celebration of traditional lifestyles, natural beauty, the four seasons -- the whole package of what it has long meant to be a Japanese.

But it also illustrates one reason why the developers and their allies have had a free hand until recently in Nagano Prefecture, where the film is set; namely, the Japanese ability to focus on the pleasing and shut out the displeasing, however loudly the latter may shout to outsiders. The couple -- a research physician on the brink of a nervous breakdown and her even-tempered, ever-smiling novelist husband -- never encounter a power line, pachinko parlor or television set, though all three are ubiquitous in every hamlet in the country (save perhaps for the few that have been preserved as outdoor museums).

Instead they get in touch with their inner Japanese and heal spirits frazzled by the urban rat race (the physician's being far more frazzled than the husband's, but no matter). Worthy endeavors, but this pair floats above the surface of the community, much like retirees who settle into a rural paradise and remain serenely ignorant of their surroundings, until the plumbing breaks down or a resort hotel starts rising in their backyard. In "Amidado Dayori," we are shown, not the realities of starting a new life in the Nagano mountains -- even winter unfolds like a series of picture postcards -- but an ideal Japanesque existence in the cinematic equivalent of a theme park.

As the film begins, Takao (Akira Terao) and Michiko (Kanako Higuchi) have already pulled up their Tokyo roots and moved to a village that is Takao's ancestral home. They visit a thatched cottage that serves as a memorial shrine (amidado) for the village dead and chat with the attendant, the spry 96-year-old Oume (Tanie Kitabayashi). Together they admire the view -- from an inspiring distance. Oume, it turns out, is a kind of sage, whose thoughts and observations are a popular feature in a column in a local newsletter. Her amanuensis is a mute, sweetly smiling young woman named Sayuri (Manami Konishi), who is as devoted to Oume as Oume is to the souls of her beloved dead.

Takao also reunites with Koda-sensei (Takahiro Tamura), his beloved junior high-school teacher, now retired, who spends his day beating the futon with his wooden sword or practicing calligraphy in his tastefully decorated Japanese-style house, overlooking a picture-perfect Japanese garden. He and his devoted wife, Yone (Kyoko Kagawa), are always dressed elegantly in Japanese-style clothes and never touch anything electronic.

When they are not interacting with these and other villagers -- wonderful folks all -- Takao and Michiko take restful walks in the woods (with Michiko stopping once to ecstatically hug a tree), potter around their house (which has been in Takao's family for ages) and otherwise soothe away stress. Michiko makes a miraculous recovery from the panic attacks that drove her from her research work at a major Tokyo hospital, while Takao thinks about writing again, after selling nothing for years.

Like the late films of Koizumi's longtime mentor, Akira Kurosawa, "Amidado Dayori" doesn't have much of a plot. Takao builds a latrine for Oume, while Michiko treats patients in a makeshift office at the local elementary school. Then we learn that Koda is suffering from terminal cancer and that Sayuri's throat condition is worsening, requiring an operation. Michiko, who knows that condition best, is the obvious person to perform it, but has she regained the confidence she needs to wield the knife?

The film, however, is less a medical drama than a feature-length therapy for middle-aged urbanites who want to be reassured, after years of depressing headlines, that in Japan one can still find the best of all possible worlds -- for Japanese that is. Outlanders who lack Takao's furusato (hometown), Oume's simple faith or Koda's mastery of all things Japanese, including his manner of death, will probably feel excluded from the wa (circle of harmony) the film strives to create. But even most Japanese viewers are moving daily through the despoiled landscapes that Koizumi's camera carefully avoids, while experiencing his "real" Japan only in occasional glimpses.

Takao and Michiko can escape into the cinematic dreamscape of "Amidado Dayori," but for most of us it's like a visit to DisneySea. Nice while it lasts, but then it's time to battle the bumper-to-bumper traffic, through the Elysium that is Urayama.

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