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Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2002

Never throw in the towel


Rating: * * *
Director: Daisuke Tengan
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

What is the baddest martial art on the block? The usual video-game answer is "the one with the coolest-looking punches and kicks," which rules out judo, sumo and most other traditional Japanese schools of unarmed combat.

News photo
Chiaki Hara and Haruhiko Kato in "Aiki"

Martial arts punchers and kickers can deliver devastating blows in any number of ways, with blinding speed. Sumo wrestlers, who fight according to clearly defined rules at close quarters, wouldn't seem to stand a chance. But how many of you karate brown belts out there would like to get into the ring with Musashimaru?

Long ago, however, one school changed the terms of the debate. In aiki jujitsu, the predecessor to modern aikido, offense is not an option. Instead, practitioners receive their opponent's attack and use his own strength against him, with circular movements that usually end with a pin or a throw, not a knock-out blow.

In "Aiki," the new film by Daisuke Tengan, a disabled former boxer becomes an aiki jujitsu expert -- a movie first. As might be expected, though, Tengan had a hard time convincing investors to put their money into a martial arts film whose hero never pounds a bad guy into mochi.

"Aiki," however, is less a chop-socky-flick-gone-soft than a victory-over-adversity movie. It is the latest in a spate of books and films whose principals range from the severely disabled to Antarctic explorers, but whose common message is: "If these people could live through hell and come out smiling, why can't you?"

This genre may have its merits, but narrative surprise isn't one of them, especially if the object is inspiration. There is the obligatory false dawn sequence when, after treading the upward path, the hero once again finds himself in the darkness. Then, after a climactic struggle, he ascends to the light. The human spirit triumphs and the credits roll.

"Aiki" is no exception, but Tengan, who also wrote the script, has made more than just another motivational film with an eye on the box office. A veteran scriptwriter and documentary filmmaker (and the son, it must be mentioned, of director Shohei Imamura), Tengan has long been interested in the problems of the disabled.

In 1992, he read an article in a Japanese martial arts magazine about a Danish man who, though paralyzed from the waist down, had become a black belt in aiki jujitsu. Intrigued, Tengan met him in Copenhagen and promised to turn his story into a film. After returning to Japan, however, Tengan got sidetracked with other projects, including "Muteki no Handicap (Invincible Handicapped)," (1994), a documentary about disabled men who fight each other in bloody wrestling bouts. The object, said the participants, was to challenge social stereotypes and to break out of the "comfort zone" of their own circumscribed world.

At the beginning of "Aiki" Taichi (Haruhiko Kato) is a fighter himself -- a young up-and-coming boxer. After winning a tough bout, he is riding on his motorbike with his girlfriend when he is hit sideways by a car. The driver is at fault, but that is small consolation to Taichi, who loses the use of his legs and, as far as he is concerned, his reason for living. Angry at the world, he drives away his girlfriend (a flighty Shibuya Girl type, she is not unhappy to leave) and prepares to commit suicide with sleeping pills when he is stopped by the grizzled Tokonabe (Shohei Hino), a fellow patient and senpai at this business of seeing the world from a wheelchair. "Give it another year," he says. "If you still don't want to live by then, I won't stop you." Taichi reluctantly agrees.

Unable to get a job and dependent on his older sister Tamiko (Chiaki Hara), Taichi sinks into self-pity and alcoholism. His unlikely rescuer is a curly-haired gangster (Masahiro Kuwana), who saves him from a beating by a trio of street punks and gives him a job running a game stall at a temple festival. Taichi is having a hard time luring customers when a strange woman (Rie Tomosaka) introduces herself as Ikasama no Samako (Samako the Swindler) and shows him a few tricks of the trade. Soon Taichi's stall is thriving and he has found another friend.

With Samako's support, he begins to dream his old dream of fighting again. But when he returns to his old boxing gym, the manager tells him to "find a sport you can do from a wheelchair." Martial arts dojos are equally unsympathetic. He then goes to a demonstration of traditional martial arts at a temple and sees aiki jujitsu for the first time. The sensei, Hiraishi (Ryo Ishibashi), throws opponents with only the flick of a wrist, the twist of a hip. He can even do it kneeling, with his upper body alone.

Impressed and inspired, Taichi asks to join Hiraishi's dojo, but Hiraishi hesitates. A straight arrow who hates to promise what he can't deliver, Hiraishi first sees for himself if it is possible to execute throws from a wheelchair. When he finds that he can, he accepts Taichi as a disciple. Overjoyed, Taichi makes rapid progress. Meanwhile his relationship with Samako is transforming from friendship into something more. But the three punks are still gunning for him -- and another crisis of confidence looms.

This is a story tailor-made for overripe melodrama. True, Tengan pumps audience tear glands -- he has to pay back those investors somehow -- but together with the occasional histrionics, he delivers a clear-sighted, unsparing picture of what it means to be disabled in Japan today, from the social prejudice to the unavoidable realities of personal hygiene. He is aided by Kato, whose performance as Taichi hits the right emotional high and low notes, with nothing held back -- or manufactured.

Tengan also gets to the heart of a martial art that is little-known and often misunderstood. (Disclosure: I earned an aikido black belt in some of the better-spent hours of my youth.) Aiki jujitsu may look like fakery to the uninitiated -- the throws seems to take too little effort (and require no Bruce Lee-like grunts and groans) -- but as Ishibashi shows with quiet dignity and solid physical skill, effort isn't everything in martial arts -- results are. His stuff works -- and so does "Aiki."

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