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Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2003

New kids on the lot

A new generation of executives is taking over at the major Japanese studios and producing more films with younger directors and stars, as well as investing more in sophisticated computer-graphic effects. The indie sector may be struggling in a recessionary climate, but with overseas festivals and distributors eager for the next hot thing from Asia, they also have more opportunities to show and sell their films abroad than ever before.

These trends are not entirely a good thing; some of the worst Japanese films this year were the ones trying hardest to be either digitally au courant or minimalistically correct. Some of the best, though, made no attempt to attract the multiplex masses or impress festival programmers. Here, in no particular order, is my own top 10 selection:


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Hideyuki Hirayama's "Out"

Four women who work together in a box-lunch factory end up in the body-disposal business when one of them accidentally strangles an abusive husband. Hideyuki Hirayama's film is less a revenge fantasy than a comic examination of human behavior at its most extreme. Hirayama smoothly mixes drama and comedy to entertaining effect, while veterans Mieko Harada, Chieko Baisho, Shigeru Muroi and Naomi Nishida turn in a vibrant ensemble performance.

"Waraeru Kaeru (The Laughing Frog)''

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Hideyoshi Hirayama's "Warau Kaeru"

A husband turns up at his estranged wife's villa, a fugitive from the law. She orders him to hide in the storeroom when visitors come -- including her new lover. In filming this comedy of a marriage gone wrong, Hideyoshi Hirayama quietly but relentlessly exposes her principals' evasions, delusions and lies. The ambiguity of tone -- is it a comedy or drama? -- keeps us guessing about the errant hubby's fate until the end.

"Kinyu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito''

Cinematic outlaw Takashi Miike presents a more conventionally humanistic side in "Kinyu Hametsu Nippon: Togenkyo no Hitobito (Shangri-La)," a film about a homeless community's efforts to aid a financially struggling printer. The film has moments of kinky sex and brutal violence, delivered with the twist of black humor twist that Miike's fans have come to expect. But mainly it's a clever romp, with financially savvy Robin Hoods outwitting wealthy malefactors, not to mention garden-variety hustlers and thieves.

"Keimusho no Naka''

Based on a comic by a former prisoner, Yo'ichi Sai's

"Keimusho no Naka (In Prison)" presents prison as an excellent place for learning to appreciate the little things. The tone is ironic, but the film's message is sincere. Though nothing much happens, much is revealed. For all the fussing and shouting about rules, we see the Japanese prison regime is generally humane. The film also captures the essence of prison life for the elderly hero: i.e., the way it strips away unessential layers and makes the world new again.


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Akihito Shiota's "Gaichu"

Sachiko (Aoi Miyazaki) is a seventh grader whose mother has attempted suicide and whose sixth-grade teacher (Sei'chi Tanabe) was forced to quit after falling in love with her. Driven out of school by the consequent ostracism, she finds freedom in the streets. In "Gaichu," Akihito Shiota films Sachiko's story minus the usual filters, in a style that combines stripped-down modern minimalism and a character-centered focus. His images may be austere, but every one tells. Shiota is, at heart, a portraitist. If he were a war photographer, his best work would be a single face that sums up the horror.

"Mokuyo Kumikyoku''

Five women gather to remember a deceased writer who was a mentor and friend, and realize that the cause of her death may have been, not suicide as they thought all along, but murder. Based on a novel by Riku Onda, Tetsuo Shinohara's "Mokuyo Kumikyoku (Thursday Suite)" is a complex drama of admiration and envy, trust and betrayal, pride and ultimate defeat. The women are smart, passionate and, at times, devious, and well-portrayed by some of the best actresses working today. As a cinematic suite, "Mokuyo Kumikyoku" makes intelligent, absorbing music -- on any day of the week.

"Dog Star''

Given one wish by his dead master, a seeing-eye dog opts to take human form and search for the family who raised him. He finds the family's only surviving member, Haruka, and after a bit of initial awkwardness, draws close -- but how can he tell her his true identity? Takehisa Zeze's "Dog Star" he turns the "cute animal" genre on its head. Meanwhile, Etsushi Toyokawa plays Shiro as a dignified dog of few words. Zeze may have spent much of his career making dirty movies, but in "Dog Star" shows us the power of love in all its forms -- and species.

"Travail (A Woman's Work)''

An older sister (Asako Seto) and a younger (Mikako Ichikawa) are professional shogi players who envy each other's relationships -- the younger, the older's stability with her salaryman husband, the older, the younger's freedom with her bohemian boyfriend -- while being bitter rivals. In telling how their lives intersect, Kentaro Otani's "Travail" gets beneath their skins, with a plot that doesn't click along so much as flow. Otani may be having fun with his role-reversal comedy, but his view of sexual dynamics in today's Japan is no fantasy.

"Alexei no Izumi (Alexei's Spring)''

Sei'ichi Motohashi's documentary "Alexei no Izumi (Alexei's Spring)" is set in a village near the Chernobyl power plant and focuses on Alexei, a 34-year-old disabled man who lives there with his elderly parents and 53 other villagers. They stay because of a spring that still gives them pure water, despite the surrounding radiation. Unobtrusively yet sympathetically, the camera records their lives. Family and community, it turns out, are stronger than a nuclear meltdown.

"Chicken Heart''

A comedy about a professional nagurareya (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) -- human punching bag -- and his two eccentric sidekicks, Hiroshi Shimizu's "Chicken Heart" echoes the style and sensibility of Shimizu's long-time boss, Takeshi Kitano, though it is less mannered and funnier than much of Kitano's comic output. His three heroes shine, particularly Suzuki Matsuo's Maru, a nerd born of a brilliantly unhinged comic mind, and Kiyoshiro Imawano's Sada, a wry, dry drifter who lives exactly how he pleases. The concluding moral: Everything changes, but the spirit, nutty or otherwise, endures. A Buddhist thought, perhaps, but one that, in Shimizu's hands, translates into a universally appealing comedy.

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