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Wednesday, April 16, 2003

Marooned on an island of strange lives


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Junji Sakamoto
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Watching Junji Sakamoto's "Bokunchi (Our House)" I felt odd tugs of nostalgia, as if I were reliving, through a distorting lens, my own boyhood. "Odd" and "distorting" because the story is set in the present day, on a tiny island somewhere in Western Japan -- a time and place that would seem to have little in common with Barberton, Ohio in the 1960s.

News photo
Yuki Tanaka and Alisa Mizuki in "Bokunchi"

Sakamoto, now 44, creates a present in "Bokunchi" that closely resembles his own past. He grew up in Osaka in the 1960s, when many people were still living hard-scrabble lives and letting their kids run free in the streets. Even his two young leads, Yuma Yamoto and Yuki Tanaka, look as though they could fit comfortably into a film by Yasujiro Ozu, say 1932's "Umarete wa Mita Keredo (I Was Born But)." There's something about them that suggests the rough-and-tumble Japanese (or American) childhoods of an earlier, more innocent era -- not the present-day cloistered daily round, moving from schools to juku to homes filled with TVs, games and computers. (In an essay in the film's program, critic Takashi Ueno claims that Japanese kids today have "different faces" from those of children a generation or ago: Too many McDonalds hamburgers -- or too little sunlight?)

Sakamoto also understands that, in their natural state, small boys (and not a few girls) are democrats with a small "d," who would sooner tag after a bum than a company president if he happens to strike their fancy -- or treats them as something more than just "children."

The supply of such simpatico and interesting (or interestingly eccentric) adults, especially in noninstitutional settings, has dwindled since Sakamoto's (and my) day. Most people are just too busy to bother with stray kids, while often the ones who do bother give the heebie-jeebies to even the most broad-minded parent.

So I can relate, though I must admit that my own boyhood brushes with the adult world were not as exciting, scary or bizarre as those of his two heroes. Well, maybe a few were -- my Little League buddies and I used to hang around a factory that made X-rated rubber goods, including blow-up dolls that had a thrilling resemblance to Marilyn Monroe. Sakamoto doesn't top that.

What he does do, however, is tell his story of an unusual family with a combination of realism and surrealism, humor and pathos that's all his own. Cartoony? Yes, though the general weirdness aptly expresses the point of view of the main character -- short, spunky 7-year-old Nitta (Tanaka). Not that we see the film entirely through his eyes, but we do come to understand what he and every kid instinctively feel: Adults are mostly grotesque-looking creatures with bad skin, peculiar habits and unfathomable obsessions -- which doesn't mean they aren't fun to be around.

In the beginning, however, there is not much fun at all for Itta (Yamoto) and younger brother Nitta, whose mother (Ran Otori) returns to their island after a long absence together with their long-lost grown-up sister Kanoko (Alisa Mizuki). Then, just when everyone is getting reacquainted (though Nitta has no memory of Kanoko), Mom goes shopping and never comes back.

Now the boys and Kanoko have no parents (their three different dads all did disappearing acts) and no money -- only a ramshackle house, surrounded by eccentrics, lovable and otherwise, who barely have two yen to rub together themselves. Itta, a natural-born hustler, becomes an apprentice to Koichi (Claude Maki) -- a rough, brawling, but basically good-natured gangster who gets him to make inhalants for the local market.

Meanwhile, little Nitta is interacting with the island characters, including Nekoba (Eiko Shinya), a crone who trundles her uncountable cats around in a cart; Tetsujii (Masaru Shiga), who collects metal scrap for a living and philosophizes for Nitta's edification; and Ando (Koji Imada), a slow-witted petty crook who laments his failed criminal career, but lauds the value of education. Then there is the wimpy widower (Ittoku Kishibe) and his three raggedy kids, who live together in a clear plastic tent, and the odd-squad staff of the island's one Chinese restaurant, who serve terrible food, but never lack for customers.

The central women in Nitta's life, however, are Saori (Yuka Kaneshiro), a cute, if very tall, neighbor he longs after forlornly, and Kanoko, who prefers him to Itta, and has her reasons.

When the house is sold (Mom, it seems, is the culprit), Kanoko and the boys find other, smaller lodgings and Kanoko goes to work in a "pink salon" to support them. Nitta soon adapts to this change -- and grows closer to Kanoko, but Itta burns with a desire to escape what he considers degrading poverty, even if it means leaving the island and everything he knows. Meanwhile, Kanoko is wrestling with her own fate -- and secret.

Based on a popular comic by Reiko Saibara, Isamu Uno's script wanders toward what seems to be its foregone conclusion at an ambling pace, making many picaresque detours. Sakamoto films this story with the same veerings between symbolically-charged drama and TV-friendly slapstick that characterized such previous films as "Ote" and "Billiken," but with a stronger stylistic grip on the directorial wheel. There is a frantic, mugging quality to Sakamoto's brand of just-folks comedy, but he grounds it in the harsh realities of this family's situation -- and the brothers' recognizably boyish ways of dealing with it.

He gets strong support from Mizuki as Kanoko. Instead of being swept up by the nuttiness around her, she stands erect like a hard-eyed, exotically beautiful bird intent on her own survival -- and fiercely protective of her young. Is Kanoko, in fact, human? An unsolved mystery in a film that celebrates human freedom and quirkiness -- for everyone from age 7 and up.

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