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Wednesday, Jan. 22, 2003

Love is a many-splintered thing

Jam Films

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Short films, like short stories, are a hard sell. The film distribution business, in Japan and elsewhere, is set up to handle features, with shorts relegated to the commercial sidelines. Thousands of people now make shorts, and hundreds of festivals and Internet sites show them, but their makers are still mostly either aspiring Steven Spielbergs who regard their films as industry calling cards, or academics who use them to pad their CVs. Spielberg may have named his company, Amblin, after an early short, but he hasn't made one in decades. (Are we counting the second segment of "Twilight Zone: The Movie?" Whatever.)

News photo
Satoshi Tsumabuki in "Justice" and Ryoko Hirosue in "Arita," from the seven-part omnibus "Jam Films"
News photo

Shinya Kawai, a producer with an impressive resume of hits ("Kitamurake no Hitobito," "Love Letter," "Ring"), has come up with an ingenious solution to the shorts distribution problem: Recruit seven prominent indie directors to make short films on the theme of "love," then release the results under the title "Jam Films."

The directors were given carte blanche as to story and style, with Kawai's only creative request being for freshness of approach. And the seven mostly deliver, with films that range from the SF manga-esque grandiloquence of Ryuhei Kitamura's "the messenger" to the fey introspection of Shunji Iwai's "Arita," though the overall tone is lighter than not.

When musicians jam, they do it on the same stage, charging up each other with their energy and ideas. The "Jam Films" directors, however, were on their own, their only link to the others being their sense of competitiveness. Their shorts are in the same film mainly because of the commercial need to package them, which Kawai has done cleverly enough. I walked out of the theater feeling, if not had, then at least let down. It was as though Kawai had promised me a meal -- and served up hors d'oeuvres.

The one with the most original taste is the first: "the messenger." A mysterious hitwoman (Kanae Uotani) corners her first victim, an arrogant gangster named Gondo (Kazuki Kitamura), alone in an underground antechamber to hell -- and tells that he is already dead. She then proves it to him, moving nary a muscle on her white mask of a face or anywhere else. With help from his CG staff, Kitamura has created a look for this eerie confrontation that resembles art photography, with saturated colors, grainy textures and stark-but-hallucinatory atmospherics. The action unfolds slowly at first -- every gesture, every eye blink is fraught with meaning -- then suddenly explodes in a rush of images. An entire feature in this style would be oppressive, but "the messenger" expands the limits of the medium with mind-bending audacity.

Next up is Tetsuo Shinohara's "Kendama," a whimsical sitcom episode about a couple for whom the thrill has gone -- until the man, Akio (Masayoshi Yamazaki), bumps into a stranger and ends up with his paper sack. Inside is a kendama (ball-and-cup toy), at which Akio proves to be a whiz. The stranger, however, will do anything to get his toy back -- and not only because he wants to master the ball-in-the-peg trick. The kendama, it turns out, contains a clue to . . . I won't spoil it. Featuring pop star Yamazaki, who also starred in Shinohara's treacly "Tsuki to Cabbage," the film is something of a bonbon for fans, though Ryoko Shinohara, playing Akio's sardonic lover, thankfully lowers the sugar count.

"Cold Sleep," the contribution of SF- and horror-meister George Iida ("Night Head," "Another Heaven"), is a wacky "Twilight Zone" episode. Fujio (Takao Osawa) awakes in a hibernation capsule, after traveling 20 light years to another solar system. He finds himself in what looks to be a Japanese elementary school classroom. All but one of his fellow space voyagers, he learns to his horror, have reverted to childhood -- and seem to be enjoying themselves tremendously. Is ignorance really better than bliss? Iida has fun answering this age-old question, but doesn't end with a Rod Sterling-like twist.

Rokuro Mochizuki presents a fantasy of a quite different type in "Pandora." Mayuko (Takami Yoshimoto) has a secret shame -- unbearably itchy feet. Seeking relief, she encounters an old Chinese vegetable seller, who claims to have just what she needs. He takes her to an empty playhouse, seats her on the stage and asks her to put her feet through an opening on the floor. What, she wonders, lurks beneath? An avid explorer of the erotic in his feature films, Mochizuki indulges a taste here that may not be to everyone's licking -- I mean liking -- but exerts a bizarre fascination nonetheless. I was reminded of the upside-down kiss between Kirsten Dunst and Tobey Maguire in "Spider-Man."

Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "Hijiki" marks a return to the black humor that Tsutsumi first displayed in the 1998 comedy "Bakayaro -- Watashi, Okottemasu." A man (Kuronosuke Sasaki) is about to sit down at the dinner table when he hears police sirens and, soon after, smells tear gas. Cops have surrounded the place and are demanding that he come out, but his three female hostages-cum-dining companions -- led by a motor-mouthed middle-aged woman (Natsuko Akiyama), want him to first sample a heaping bowl of hijiki -- an algae dish that he loathes. Like much of Tsutsumi's work, "Hijiki" is too talky and gimmicky by half, though the hero's hijiki rant, in which he compares the stuff to hair on a plate, is alone worth the price of admission.

Far funnier is Isao Yukisada's "Justice." A class of high school boys listen to a blond gaijin teacher drone through the Potsdam Declaration. One diligently takes notes, one draws a pornographic anime and one stares out the window at girls jumping hurdles -- and becomes entranced with the way they pull the fabric of their shorts over their bottoms as they return to the starting line. The film builds to an erotic cascade of snapping elastic -- and love at first sight. What does the Potsdam Declaration have to do with any of this? Yukisada leaves the answer to the viewer, though the gaijin teacher's arrogance offers a clue.

"Arita," by Iwai, deals with another kind of obsession. A girl grows up drawing an imaginary critter she calls Arita on everything from her notebooks to her test papers. She secretly believes in its existence until she starts to outgrow her childhood fantasies. But by this time, as she discovers one day, Arita has taken on a scarifying life of its own. Charming if slight, "Arita" anchors the compilation mainly because it stars super-idol Ryoko Hirosue, who appears only in its closing minutes but is featured prominently in all "Jam Films" publicity.

This is not deceptive advertising. Hirosue, that ingenue par excellence, whose slightly goofy, slightly flirty, slightly mysterious grin has brightened a thousand magazine covers, sums up what "Jam Films" is mostly about: entertainment with attitude and humor, but nothing too rude. Takashi Miike, pointedly, was not on Kawai's invitation list.

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