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Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Soba, salsa and sex in scenic Shikaoi

Onna wa Basutei de Fuku o Kikaeta

Rating: * * 1/2(out of 5)
Director: Masaru Konuma
Running time: 99 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Japanese communities have long vied to be the location of the next Godzilla or Tora-san movie, but until recently U.S.-style film commissions were unknown. Since the launch of the Japan Film Commission Promotion Council in February 2000, however, film commissions have sprouted like the proverbial bamboo shoots. The JFCPC now has 41 members, from Hokkaido to Kyushu, all dreaming of attracting a Hollywood production, but willing to settle for the Japanese indie shoot that draws attention -- and more importantly, tourists -- to their town or prefecture.

News photo
Ken'ichi Endo and Naho Toda in "Onna wa Basu-tei de Fuku o Kikaeta"

This is a welcome development, I suppose, though the films I've seen that have been made with film commission support tend toward the ploddingly earnest (Nobuhiko Obayashi's "Nagori Yuki") or the travel posterish (Itsumichi Isomura's "Fune o Oritara Kanojo no Shima"). This is only to be expected; despite the JFCPC's admonition that "film commissions should not say no to a film project because of content," most members regard films as a type of machi okoshi (civic promotion). Filmmakers have so far been willing, and even eager, to play along, often because, like Obayashi and Isomura, they are local boys who have made good -- and want to do good for the folks back home.

Masaru Konuma is the latest in this line. A Hokkaido native, Konuma recently returned home to make "Onna wa Basu-tei de Fuku o Kikaeta (The Woman Changed Her Clothes at the Bus Stop)," a melodrama that resembles Isomura's film in not only its title and its story of star-crossed lovers, but also its tourist-promo take on its location. Where Isomura was content with picture-postcard shots of the Inland Sea, Konuma takes us on a guided tour of Shikaoi-cho, a central Hokkaido town of 6,000. Among the highlights are a museum dedicated to Nissho Kando, a Tokyo artist who moved to Hokkaido shortly after the war and painted scenes of rural life with a dark realism and emotional force that recall early Van Gogh.

But as attractive as Konuma tries to make Shikaoi-cho for all you vacation planners out there, he can't disguise the fact that this pleasant little town, with its new, if mostly generic, tourist attractions, is a strange choice for his story of forbidden love, whose two principals are salsa dancers. A funky Hokkaido port city, maybe. But the Hokkaido equivalent of Lake Woebegone, Minnesota?

Konuma, a leading director of "roman porno" -- 60-minute soft-porn programs -- for Nikkatsu in the 1970s and '80s, had a critically acclaimed hit three years ago with the coming-of-age drama "Nagisa." In "Onna wa Basu-tei de Fuku o Kikaeta" he returns to the more familiar territory of steamy adult passion, though his stylized scenes of sexual heat are lurid, jarring and unintentionally comic. Imagine a passionate Latin pas de deux in the middle of a rural Japanese wedding reception -- or rather don't.

The woman in the title is Mizue (Naho Toda), a sultry beauty who gets off the bus at Shikaoi-cho alone, carrying nothing but a battered leather suitcase and the address of Mitsuru Arisaka (Ken'ichi Endo), her former salsa dance partner and the older brother of her dead husband.

Also alighting from the bus is Noriko Harada (Mami Nakamura), the punkish daughter of a flaky beautician, Eiko (Yuko Katagiri), who is enamored of the equally irrepressible Shin'ichi Iwabuchi (Moro Morooka), a counterman at an izakaya and Mitsuru's childhood friend.

As one might expect, all of these lines eventually cross -- though the most important is that connecting Mitsuru and Mizue. Both are at turning points in their lives, but Mitsuru at least has a direction. Once a dance pro, and with the trophies to prove it, he is now teaching salsa to a class of friendly, if bumbling, locals while learning the art of soba-making from a crusty old soba master (Kazuo Kitamura). He intends to open a soba shop -- and forget the past.

Meanwhile, Mizue makes the rounds of the town's tourist attractions, including the Kanda Museum, while becoming acquainted with Noriko, who longs to go to Tokyo, and Yuichi (Kazuyuki Yasumura), another urban refugee, who works at a horse farm and has a crush on Noriko. Noriko and Yuichi's budding romance plays out in a minor, cliched key: She wants to leave, he wants her to stay -- and guess how the twain shall meet?

Mizue and Mitsuru's relationship is more ambiguous and conflicted. Though Mizue is now a widow and thus presumably free, Mitsuru keeps her at arm's length, though he is obviously dying to embrace her. What's on his mind -- or rather, his conscience?

The film's answer to this question may be a melodramatic chestnut, but Endo, as Mitsuru, grounds it in something more than routine gesture. Though much in demand for tough guy roles ("Inu Hashiru: Dog Race," "Tengoku Kara Kita Otokotachi," "Katakurike no Hitobito"), Endo can also play comedy and romance with directness and transparency. What you see is what you get, delivered with likable craftsmanship. Endo even manages to make the film's odd outbursts of Latin passion bearable, if still embarrassing.

As Mizue, Toda spends much of the film on a voyage of inner discovery that would not be out of place on a heartwarming NHK morning drama. Her real importance to the film, however, is as a woman seething with longing and frustration, who periodically explodes into hysterical violence and sexual frenzy.

Konuma works these eruptions for all they are worth -- and more, but they are mostly set pieces that stand apart from the rest of the film. In a typical "pink" movie, this wouldn't matter; the audience is there for the sexual payoffs -- the gaudier the better. "Onna wa Basu-tei de Fuku o Kikaeta" aspires to pathos, but settles for erotic pyrotechnics -- and coitus interruptus.

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