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Wednesday, Nov. 13, 2002

When madness lurches this way

Kyoki no Sakura

Rating: * * *
Director: Kenji Sonoda
Running time: 122 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Funny how political orientation is more often determined by cultural background and personality type than a sifting of ideas. As George Orwell once observed, fascism of the strutting, boasting, power-mad Mussolini sort could never take root in England because it inspired nothing more in the average Englishman than a disgusted snigger.

News photo
Yosuke Kubozuka, Genki Sudo and Rikiya in "Kyoki no Sakura"

The reaction in prewar Japan was somewhat different. Whatever they thought of fascism's racial theories -- anti-Semitism at that time was not a high priority -- more than a few Japanese found its leader worship, nativism, xenophobia and love of uniforms and pomp more culturally and temperamentally compatible than democracy. Then along came the war, the defeat and half a century of Westernization, but Japanese fascists have never quite gone away, have they? Instead they have morphed into uyokuha (rightists) who ride about playing ancient military songs from boxy sound trucks that look as though they ought to be carrying diamond shipments instead of scowling burr-headed men.

But as uncool as the rightists may look to the teenage fashionistas who stride past their trucks with barely a backward glance, they have a place in this society and culture that their outcast Western brethren are usually denied. What that place is, and how it is changing, is the subject of "Kyoki no Sakura (Cherry Blossoms of Madness)," a film by newcomer Kenji Sonoda that does the seemingly impossible: make rightists -- or at least an imaginary segment of them -- look cool again.

It does this through the now familiar devices of contemporary youth culture, including a propulsive hip-hop score by K Dub Shine, flash cuts and other MTV-friendly visuals, supplied by music-video veteran Sonoda and his staff; and production design by Takashi Sasaki that is at once over-the-top and ironic, with cherry blossoms and other Japonesque symbols coming across like design motifs in a hipper-than-thou club.

What is new is not only the theme (it's hard to think of another recent Japanese film with rightist heroes, or even heroes with more than a passing interest in politics), but the approach. Whereas an earlier generation of directors -- Oshima, Shinoda and Imamura, to name three -- would have tackled this theme from a politically engaged stance, with a commitment to realism, however stylized, Sonoda takes a more ideologically distanced view and creates a world more what-if than as-is.

It would be easy to dismiss this approach as so much posturing, with one eye on the box office, but I think he's onto something: His hero's violent disgust with present-day Japan has deep roots and is shared by more than a marginalized few. Also, if the revolution he envisions comes, it will probably be accompanied, not by the marching music of his grandfather's day, but by the film's hip-hop beat.

Initially the three members of the film's Neo Tojo party -- the shaven-headed Yamaguchi (Yosuke Kubozuka), the buzz cut-sporting Ichikawa (Rikiya) and bulldog-faced Kosuge (Genki Sudo) -- seem to have nothing more in mind than daily thrashing the lowlifes in Yamaguchi's native Shibuya. Their definition of "lowlife" turns out to be broad, however, encompassing everyone from kids with dyed hair to foreigners (i.e., nearly everyone walking down Center Gai). The latter are the stereotypes of bad Japanese action movies and violent video games, including burly bouncer types who serve as foils for the trio's martial arts heroics.

There is no limit to what the Neo Tojo-ites call their "cleansing" operations; the city is too full of human rubbish for them to ever completely dispose of, though they never tire of trying. To give them credit, they usually wade into battle outnumbered and the jackbooted stomping of innocents is not part of their repertoire. The film, in fact, presents their many brawls in a kinetic style reminiscent of Nike ads, as though beating the bejesus out of strangers were good, clean, fashionable fun.

The story kicks into gear when the Neo Tojo-ites attract the attention of the smooth-talking, elegantly attired Aota (Yoshio Harada), the chairman of a rightist group that is little more than a yakuza gang by a different name. He wines and dines the boys, particularly Yamaguchi, and even gives them a SUV for their rampages around town. The object is to recruit them for his group, but though Yamaguchi comes to see Aota as a father figure, he is wary of his blandishments, less because of ideological differences than a dislike of being tied down. He has to give his rage free vent -- otherwise he would implode.

His two companions, however, fall under the spell of Aota's second-in-command, the greasy, devious Hyodo (Hirotaro Honda), and the group's resident hit man, the darkly charismatic Saburo (Yosuke Eguchi). Then another threat to the trio's solidarity appears in the form of sweet, naive schoolgirl Keiko (Mariko Takahashi), who happens upon Yamaguchi administering rough moral uplift to a gang of punks and is instantly smitten. Yamaguchi brushes her off, but Keiko refuses to give up -- and insinuates herself into his life.

Further complications arise when Yamaguchi and company invade a gaijin club where drug deals are going down -- and incur the wrath of the Konishi-gumi, a yakuza gang that is Aota's sworn enemy. Then Kosuge leaves Neo Tojo to serve under Hyodo, while Ichikawa joins up with Saburo. Yamaguchi is left alone to deal with Aota, Keiko and his own all-consuming anger.

As in "Go," the 2001 film about the life of a similarly angry ethnic Korean teen that made Kubozuka a star, the political becomes the personal in "Kyoki no Sakura." Yamaguchi's rightism, we see, derives less from a visceral hatred of delinquents, foreigners and other degenerate types who are sullying the sacred soil of Dai Nippon than a difficult childhood that left him without an anchor in a chaotic world. This revelation makes him more sympathetic as a character, but turns the film in the direction of teen-targeted drama about troubled youth.

Not entirely, though. As commercial as it may be in its presentation, even hawking Neo Tojo gear on its Web site, "Kyoki no Sakura" reveals a face of the culture that the world once knew all too well, but official Japan has tried so long to hide or dismiss. It shows us fascism as a lifestyle choice, a form of self-expression and a fashion statement. Only in Japan? Maybe not -- but certainly in Shibuya.

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