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Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2003

Life with the dead leads to tears


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Akihito Shiota
Running time: 126 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Most Japanese say they believe in no one religious creed: They are Shintoists at weddings, Buddhists at funerals. Noting this attitude, as well as the way in which many Japanese booze, bounce portable shrines and otherwise live it up at O-bon and other ostensibly religious festivals, foreigners often conclude that they are, at best, unserious about matters spiritual.

News photo
Tsuyoshi Kusanagi and Yuko Takeuchi in "Yomigaeri"

But after watching dozens of Japanese movies with supernatural themes, as well as noticing the enormous popularity here of films like "Ghost" and "The Sixth Sense," I have to wonder. For people who claim not to give a toss about the whole religious thing, Japanese certainly spend a lot of time, as well as yen, on cinematic excursions to the World Beyond.

The latest is Akihito Shiota's "Yomigaeri (Resurrection)," starring Tsuyoshi Kusanagi of the pop group SMAP, a TV fixture for more than a decade, which is usually more than enough time for all but die-hard fans to have had their fill. That teenage girls are packing theaters for this film says something about not only SMAP's enduring popularity, but the appeal of the material itself. Though the film's story of the dead returning to their loved ones borrows heavily from Nobuhiko Obayashi's tearjerker "Ashita (Tomorrow)," among other films, Shiota's telling of it is less cringe-inducing than I had thought possible.

The director of the critically acclaimed teen drama "Gaichu (Harmful Insect)" Shiota is not a reliable hack of the sort the studios typically hire for their glossy women's pictures. Instead of forcing Kusanagi into the usual trembly-lipped mold, Shiota wisely allows him to be his normal SMAPster self.

Despite his resemblance to Buster Keaton (think pork-pie hat instead of long, lovingly tended locks), Kusanagi glides through the film with a self-confidence that approaches a Beatles-esque absolute. Taking audience goodwill for granted -- and why shouldn't he? -- Kusanagi allows himself to react naturally to the moment. When he explodes in anger or passion, he really feels it and the audience gets a Kusanagi it has never seen on "SMAP × SMAP."

It also gets a beginning seemingly inspired by "The Night of the Living Dead." A boy who died during World War II turns up at the door of his now-ancient mother, looking the same, down to his burr haircut, as he did 58 years ago. Heita (Kusanagi), an elite bureaucrat for the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry, is called in to investigate and is flummoxed by what he discovers. But when he discusses the case with Aoi (Yuko Takeuchi), a colleague and childhood friend, she is brusquely dismissive.

The number of cases keeps growing, however.

There is the elderly man whose wife resurrects several years after she died of cancer. He tells Heita he is glad to have someone to talk to again (and one suspects, wash his underwear). There is the couple running a ramen restaurant together -- and quietly falling in love -- when the woman's dead husband (Sho Aikawa) and the man's dead elder brother (Yoshikazu Toshin) appear. There is the teenage boy (Hayato Ichihara) who committed suicide to escape bullying from his classmates -- he shows up at his own funeral. There is Aoi's kindly therapist (Kunie Tanaka), whose deaf wife (Akiko Oshidari) died in childbirth -- and returns three decades later for an emotional reunion with her husband and daughter, now a teacher of the deaf.

Aoi becomes a believer, while longing for a resurrection of her own: Her fiance, a lanky surfer named Shunsuke (Yusuke Iseya), died just before they were to be married. Meanwhile, Heita, who was Shunsuke's close friend and has long loved Aoi from afar, has intensely conflicting feelings about Shunsuke's return. Knowing what he now knows about the resurrected, should he help -- or hinder?

In threading these stories together, Shiota wrings most of the expected tears -- how could he not? -- while injecting realistic notes, as when the teenage boy returns to his class and is greeted with sullen resentment by his tormentors. Also, instead of overly dwelling on the problems caused by the returnees, he concentrates on the value of what they have been given -- and start to give to those around them.

TV drama star Takeuchi plays Aoi as a fresh-faced tomboy who joshes all the guys out of sex until she meets a macho type who won't take no for an answer. Kusanagi's Heita is not that type and the sexual tension between him and Aoi consequently remains at the just-friends stage for much of the film. Not that this bothers Heita -- at least until the third act, when the mystery surrounding the resurrected is revealed.

Enough to say that the climax unfolds during a rock concert, whose headliners are a couple (Kou Shibasaki and Katsuyuki Murai) who have the same tattoo, but never speak a word to each other throughout the film. The heart, however, has its own language, one that they have mastered -- but that Heita learns almost too late. Time, he discovers, is the most precious of gifts. Share it with the one you love.

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