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Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2003

A different sort of Japanese hero


Rating: * * *
Director: Kazuki Omori
Running time: 104 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Reading the publicity materials for "T.R.Y.," the new costume thriller starring Yuji Oda, I was unfortunately reminded of "Rakuyo," the 1992 flop that drove the Nikkatsu studio into receivership.

News photo
Yuji Oda (center) in "T.R.Y."

Made at a cost of 5 billion yen, a huge sum for a Japanese film then or now, and starring Donald Sutherland and Diane Lane, neither of whom list it on their filmographies, "Rakuyo" told a story of intrigue in Manchuria during the tumultuous days of the Japanese occupation. Leadenly paced, incoherently plotted and ludicrously overacted, it was a case study in how not to make a movie and played to empty theaters.

Set in prewar Shanghai and its environs, "T.R.Y." has a similar theme, budget and international ambitions. There the resemblance ends, however: The new film is far lighter on its feet and enjoyable to watch, though its take on early 20th-century Chinese history is comic-book simple.

Directed by Kazuki Omori, a veteran journeyman whose credits include a Godzilla movie and an overripe biopic of writer Kenji Miyazawa, "T.R.Y." is hardly cutting-edge entertainment: The sets look like sets, the costumes like costumes, all lit with a shop-window brightness, as though to prove to the film's backers that their yen are indeed up on the screen. This is the usual approach for period dramas on Japanese television, but has been out of fashion in Hollywood for a generation (save for Chris Columbus and other directors who seem to get their aesthetics from department store Christmas displays).

For pacing and acting, however, Omori has taken hints more from Hollywood buddy movies and Jackie Chan martial arts epics than NHK. "T.R.Y." clips along, with plenty of stops for slam-bang action and cheeky humor. Playing the con-man hero, Yuji Oda exudes a likable arrogance. While knowing he is the smartest man in the room, he refuses to take himself seriously. Also, unlike the many Japanese actors in international films who never really connect with the non-Japanese in the cast (see Takeshi Kitano in "Brother"), Oda bonds with Korean costar Sohn Chang Min and Chinese costar Shao Bing, who portray his partners in deceit and righteous revolution.

Oda is Izawa, a scam-artist extraordinaire who may be daring, but never resorts to violence. Shanghai, his base of operations, is a multicultural caldron of crime and political discontent, through which Izawa glides with insolent ease. He obeys no laws but his own, though he is a good-hearted sort who steals from the rich and gives to the poor. One of his marks, however, puts a tiresomely persistent hit man (Peter Ho) on his trail and he ends up seeking protection from Guan Feihu (Shao Bing), the dashing leader of an antigovernment radical group. When Izawa declines to become involved in the group's plans ("I'm just a third-rate hustler," he explains), Guan threatens to kill him himself -- so Izawa enlists in the cause.

His mission: snooker the Japanese army out of arms and ammunition. His target: Azuma (Ken Watanabe), a stiff-necked lieutenant general who holds the keys to the munitions kingdom, but has no interest in women, money or advancement -- making Izawa's job hard, if not impossible. Needing to examine his prey at close quarters, Izawa pursues him to Japan. There he enlists the support of friendly teahouse mistress (Hitomi Kuroki) and, more importantly, a Chinese punk (Shunsuke Matsuoka) who bears an uncanny resemblance to a royal prince of the Manchu Dynasty. The prince, as it happens, is a favorite of Azuma, who taught him at the Imperial Army officers school.

Posing as a confidant of the prince and bearing a phony letter of introduction from Azuma's German military mentor, Izawa insinuates himself into the general's confidence. The scheme, however, starts to unravel when Izawa returns to Shanghai -- and Azuma starts to get wise. Also, the manic hit man reappears at this most inconvenient of moments. If Izawa hopes to survive, he will have do some of the fastest thinking of his life.

Not long ago a film of this sort would have been pitched exclusively at a domestic audience and would have expressed nationalistic sentiments, overt or otherwise. In "Rakuyo" the hero becomes a drug dealer and gun runner for the greater glory of Dai Nippon. The producers of "T.R.Y.," however, are aiming at the Asian market, and the film's politics are accordingly anti-imperialistic to the end. Mao, one imagines, would have applauded the triumph of its revolutionary forces -- and ordered the hero's execution. His present-day successors are more tolerant types who have approved the film's China release.

One wonders what Chinese audiences will make of Izawa: A new, more sympathetic Japanese hero -- or a confirmation of long-held suspicions about Japanese amorality? Izawa's heart may be in the right place, but his eyes are forever on the main chance.

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