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Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003

The kiss of the jellyfish



Akarui Mirai

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Jan. 18


Aimai na Mirai

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Kenjiro Fujii
Running time: 74 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Feb. 8

How can a movie title like "Akarui Mirai (Bright Future)" not be ironic when Kiyoshi Kurosawa is the director? Best known for films like "Cure" and "Kairo (Pulse)" that chill the spine more than warm the heart, Kurosawa is the dark prince of the Japanese new wave. But unlike the horror-meisters who take a sardonic delight in their grisly subject matter, Kurosawa is almost painfully sincere. When he says "bright future" he means it -- even though his definition of "bright" may be quite different from yours.

News photo
Tadanobu Asano and Jo Odagiri in Kiyoshi Kukrosawa's "Akarui Mirai"
News photo

Also, despite the new wave label, Kurosawa is, at 47, hardly a newcomer. He spent long years turning out horror and yakuza quickies for the video shelves before his international breakthrough with the 1997 psycho-thriller "Cure." While striving, usually with minimal means, to jolt his audience out of its "just-a-video" complacency, he managed to inject his own concerns -- and fears -- into his material. In the process, he developed an instantly recognizable style with a detached gaze (few close-ups, quick cuts or camera moves) and anxiety-ridden atmospherics all his own. An outwardly placid surface, in other words, but with an unsettling background hum of impeding violence or world-shattering doom.

"Akarui Mirai" is Kurosawa in a more personal and realistic mode than usual. Instead of serial killers or ghosts in machines, his heroes are two young guys working in a plant that processes oshibori -- the wet hand towels found everywhere from fancy restaurants to soaplands. Their main dilemma is a rage they cannot articulate or control. Their central relationship is with each other -- and a jellyfish that one of them keeps as a pet.

The phenomenon of Japanese -- mainly urban and young -- blowing up at the slightest provocation, with fatal consequences, is hardly news. Many directors have already had a try at it from various angles, with results that range from the blackly comic (Jun Ichikawa's "Tadon to Chikuwa") to the brutally grotesque (Takashi Miike's "Ichi the Killer"). Kurosawa's take is characteristically unique -- and modest. Instead of striking the usual pose of directorial omniscience, he gropes toward understanding -- and runs up against a blank wall of incomprehension.

Without the strong narrative drive and clear direction of his genre stories, Kurosawa's more personal films tend to sputter and meander -- and "Akarui Mirai" is no exception. The film's very formlessness, however, fits its theme: that the heroes' violent acts are less a matter of rational cause and effect than essential to their natures -- natures that are finally unknowable. Also, Kurosawa being Kurosawa, he sets his inquiry in a world several degrees removed from ours. Not quite the eerie dreamscapes of his films "Charisma" or "Oinaru Genei (Barren Illusions)," this world nonetheless has their persuasive emotional logic. I don't always know what is going on or why, but I can't help watching. Kurosawa and I must share the same nightmares.

News photo
Kiyoshi Kurosawa on the set of "Akarui Mirai" with Jo Odagiri

The two heroes are Mamoru (Tadanobu Asano) and Yuji (Jo Odagiri), who labor in the aforementioned oshibori plant and have become close friends. Both are antisocial loners with short fuses. Also, both wear tight, shredded, earth-color outfits that look vaguely futuristic, as though they've been taking fashion hints from the resistance forces in "Terminator 2." Yuji worships the older, enigmatic Mamoru, who lives with a red jellyfish that is hauntingly luminous and fatally poisonous. Mamoru shows him how to care for the creature, which swims alone in its tank, waving its tentacles with deceptive gentleness.

One day Mamoru and Yuji's irritatingly self-absorbed boss (Takashi Sasano) visits Mamoru's apartment and playfully sticks his hand in the tank. Yuji is about to warn him, when Mamoru signals his friend to cease and desist. Why? The boss had earlier pressed them into service as furniture movers for his indecisive shrew of a wife -- and this is Mamoru's payback.

The boss, however, survives, learns that the jellyfish could have killed him and fires Mamoru on the spot. Enraged at this treatment of his friend, Yuji grabs a metal pipe and storms over to the boss's house with lethal intent. He finds, however, that Mamoru has been there first -- and left two bodies in his wake.

Mamoru is arrested and Yuji visits him in jail. More than his impending trial, Mamoru is concerned about the fate of his pet. He has nothing to worry about: For Yuji the creature has become a stand-in for his jailed friend -- and a link to a lost paradise. Mamoru's father, Shinichiro (Tatsuya Fuji), also pays a call -- the first time he has seen his son in five years. Their conversation is expectedly awkward, but Shinichiro is unexpectedly sympathetic to Mamoru's plight. A fixer and seller of discarded televisions and other technological detritus, he also wants to repair his relationship with his son.

When Mamoru suddenly dies (best not to say how), Shinichiro and Yuji find solace in each other. Yuji is racked with guilt over not only his failure to save Mamoru but also a freak accident that freed the jellyfish from its tank, to live or die in the river beyond. With Shinichiro's bemused assistance, Yuji casts feed into the nearby rivers, in a frantic attempt to keep the jellyfish alive. Then Mamoru pays a ghostly visit to Shinichiro's shop -- and reasserts his influence over Yuji and Shinichiro's by-now conjoined lives.

Mamoru, we see, is to human society what the jellyfish is to the natural world: a solitary being who possesses a strange charisma and stings whatever invades its space. As played by Asano, he is almost terrifying remote, with his unreadable face and coiled power. Odagiri as Yuji is more conventionally the Angry Young Man, but the source of his rage is equally hard to fathom. As the third corner of this triangle, Fuji projects a tolerance that may be at variance with the typical stubbornness of fathers in Japanese films, but his performance illuminates Kurosawa's vision, in which "bright future" is defined less by status or riches than the possibility of love.

Those curious as to how he created it should see "Aimai na Mirai (Ambivalent Future)," Kenjiro Fuji's documentary about the filming of "Akarui Mirai." The winner of the audience prize at the 2002 Tokyo Filmex festival, the film is a fascinating, intelligently edited look at not only Kurosawa's at-times opaque thought processes, but how many independent films get made in this country -- with low budgets, but a high level of professionalism from all concerned. Though at times almost unintelligible because of traffic noise -- the inevitable background music of Tokyo lives -- the film comes with English subtitles. Recommended.



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