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Wednesday, April 2, 2003

My grandfather, the yakuza slayer

Watashino Grandpa

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Yoichi Higashi
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Film, we are always being told, is a director's medium. And so it is, not so much because directors outrank nearly everyone else on the set -- save the stars -- but because the better ones put their signature on the final product. In the words of Howard Hawks, you know a film is good when "you can tell who the devil made it."

News photo
Satomi Ishida and Bunta Sugawara in "Watashi no Grandpa"

But as another director, Kon Ichikawa, once told me, "Directing is 70 percent casting." In other words, you can have a brilliant script, slick camera moves and lighting like a Vermeer, but without the right actors, you don't have a movie. Also, as Ichikawa reminded me, even the best actors can be miscast.

Some roles demand one actor, period, such as the grandfather in Yoichi Higashi's "Watashi no Grandpa (My Grandpa)." Plenty of Japanese actors can play folksy, warm-hearted granddads, but how many can do one who has recently served a sentence for murder and can still manhandle punks half a century younger? The list narrows to one: Bunta Sugawara.

In movies like "Gendai Yakuza: Hitogiri Yota (Street Mobster)" (1971) and "Jingi Naki Tatakai (Battles Without Honor and Humanity)" (1973), Sugawara did for movie yakuza what De Niro did for Hollywood gangsters -- blast away artificial conventions with a force that was just this side of manic (or in some cases, psychotic). De Niro may have had greater craft, but Sugawara arguably had more raw power: He was a tsunami in a crew-cut. An actor who had spent much of his youth drifting around the fringes of the underworld and didn't get his first big break -- in the "Gendai Yakuza" series -- until he was pushing 40, Sugawara had not only the edge of desperation, but also an aura of hard living. His performances were all of a street-tough piece, with no attempt to embellish.

The years may have taken away the wildness, but the charisma is still intact. "Watashi no Grandpa" may be little more than a Sugawara vehicle, but he holds the screen effortlessly every minute he is on. Perhaps the real parallel is not De Niro, who is now playing clownish parodies of his greatest roles, but Clint Eastwood, who has eased into old age on the screen with dignity and self-deprecating humor.

This film, like the one in which Clint plays an old astronaut ("Space Cowboys"), strains credibility in an entertaining way. At the start, an aging gangster, Kenzo (Sugawara), has just been released from prison after serving a 13-year stretch for killing two yakuza. He arrives at the home of his salaryman son (Mitsuru Harada), looking as though he has just come from a relaxing soak in the ofuro. His perky daughter-in-law (Yoshiko Miyazaki) and cute 13-year-old granddaughter, Tamako (Satomi Ishida), are also there to greet him, but not his estranged wife (Kiriko Namino), who knows Kenzo too well to believe that he can stay out of trouble.

Tamako, however, takes an instant liking to the man she is soon calling "grandpa" (or rather, guranpa) especially when he subdues teenage punks who are harassing her. She has also noticed that, far from being regarded as a pariah by the neighborhood, he is welcomed as a returning hero.

Among those giving him a warm reception is Shinichi (Tadanobu Asano), a phlegmatic bar master who is the son of Kenzo's old friend. Among those less enthusiastic is the shiny-domed boss (Masato Ibu) of the Hikita gang, two of whose members Kenzo cut to pieces.

The trouble started in the bubble-economy days, when the gang was in the jiageya game, forcing local merchants to sell their property to crooked real-estate speculators. When their harassment resulted in the death of Kenzo's friend, he took his revenge and ended up in the slammer.

Despite his easygoing ways, Kenzo still has the same strong sense of justice and willingness to mix it up, come what may. He also has his old knack for making friends, adding not only Tamako, but also the neighborhood bullies to a long list. Before he can enjoy his happy golden years, however, he must settle a score with Hikita and his gang, with Tamako serving as an unwilling pawn.

Based on an award-winning novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui, "Watashi no Grandpa" is Sugawara's first semiaction role in 12 years, since his turn as a boxing coach in Junji Sakamoto's "Ote (Checkmate)." Now pushing 70, he can still subdue the bad guys, without looking as though he'll need a respirator the moment the camera is turned off. He also plays well opposite newcomer Ishida as Tamako. Where some actors might turn on the smarmy, avuncular charm, Sugawara remains, well, Sugawara -- the ideal, cool granddad.

Meanwhile Higashi, who won the Silver Bear prize at the 1996 Berlin Film Festival for his childhood drama "E no Naka no Boku no Mura (Village of Dreams)," shows off Sugawara at his best, while keeping his own directorial personality in the background.

He knows that his audience will come to "Watashi no Grandpa," first and foremost, to see Sugawara in action, the fires banked but still glowing. Who needs Vermeer lighting when you've got a yakuza master for the ages?

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