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Wednesday, June 4, 2003

Here's to watching the detectives again and again

Mottomo Kiken na Deka Matsuri

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Shin Deka Matsuri

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Running time: 100 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

For decades, filmmakers fought to break free of restraints -- be they censors or balky film stock -- to bring their visions to the screen.

News photo
Kosuke Toyohara and Ren Osugi in "Shin Deka Matsuri"

But now, with CG wizards making the wildest fantasies a reality in film after $100-million film, old-fashioned, back-to-basics movie-making has started to look interesting again. Thus the Dogma movement, with its rejection of Hollywood flash in favor of stripped-down aesthetics (only natural sound and lighting, "found" locations, etc.). Thus faux-retro films like "Far From Heaven" and "Down With Love," with their loving reconstruction of 1950s Hollywood tropes, in everything from opening titles to camera moves.

Makoto Shinozaki's "Deka Matsuri," an omnibus of four films has its own rules: Each segment in each movie must feature a detective hero, run approximately 10 minutes and contain five or more gags. But despite the retro sound of the titles (the third installment, "Mottomo Kiken na Deka Matsuri," is a play on an old Yusaku Matsuda film) and the posters (1970s B-movie pics), the directors of each segment are free to interpret the rules as they wish, within the limits of their minuscule budgets, of course.

Shinozaki, who made one of the best films of the 1990s -- "Okaeri" -- is a veteran industry schmoozer who recruited some of the most talented directors now working in Japanese films for this project, including Kiyoshi Kurosawa, Shinji Aoyama, Hiro kazu Korefeda, Akihiko Shioda and Takehisa Zeze.

The last two entries, which are currently playing as a double bill at Cinema Shimokitazawa, are not quite as star-studded as the first two. Also, several segments are little more than TV comedy sketches with pretensions, but several others are brilliant from beginning to end -- and most have moments of inspired craziness. If you have only a fleeting acquaintance with Japanese detective TV shows and films, the genre-parody jokes may not register, but it hardly matters. The next segment will probably have a bit or two that has you gagging on your Evian.

The gem is Yoji Tanaka's "Kamaoka Keiji: Coming Out Cop (Detective Kamaoka: Coming Out Cop)," starring the ubiquitous Ren Osugi as a middle-aged detective with an unfortunate name. New acquaintances, it seems, can't resist the temptation to pun "Kamaoka" into "Okamaoka" -- "Homosexual Oka." Well, is he or isn't he? Kamaoka himself isn't sure, or rather, as we come to see, he is in deep denial.

The truth starts to come out when he collars a gay crook: The criminal realizes the cop is taking more than a professional interest in the up-close contact. Tanaka gives the gags that follow a surrealistic spin -- Kamaoka seems to be caught in a nightmare of embarrassment from which he can't awake -- while enlisting our sympathy for the closeted cop's dilemma. Osugi -- the most in-demand character actor in Japanese movies -- goes beyond the usual gay stereotypes to reveal something of Kamaoka's comically tortured soul. And all in only 10 minutes.

The hardest working of Shinozaki's directors, however, is probably Kenji Tsuda, who made his segment, "Kozo Deka (Baby Elephant Detective)," entirely in stop-motion animation. The premise -- a tiny elephant doll as a relentless cop -- may seem too precious by half, but Tsuda's straight-faced execution lowers the sugar count, while giving a wry twist to the proceedings. Also, though his diminutive detective inhabits a cutesy alternative universe -- he questions folks while standing in the palm of their hands -- he is a fiery little bundle of determination, who gives not a millimeter to his vastly larger foes. The animation is a marvel of detail and invention -- Tsuda, whose day job is acting, could do wonders in the Japanese equivalent of Pixar.

Absurdity of another type is afoot in Nao Omori's " Rehabili Keiji (The Rehabilitated Detective)," whose title hero (Ken Mitsuishi) has become madly obsessed with his job, to the point where he is seeing bad guys around every corner. (The medical term for this condition, we are informed, is keiji chudoku, which means "detective poisoning.") When he ventures back on to the streets after a session in rehab his concerned mates tail him, trying to head off a relapse. The befuddled hero, however, is soon flashing his badge at everyone in sight and chasing after a terrified innocent. Before he can be stopped, he happens on a real crime in progress. We see that his madness has, if not a method, then at least its uses. Omori zeroes in on his target -- the workaholicism of the typical movie cop -- with hilarious precision. Ken Mitsuishi, as the cop, does double and triple takes with spot-on timing, while never quite dropping his rigid Organization Man mask.

If these segments stand out for their meticulous craftsmanship -- for making every cut count and build -- most of the others are looser in construction and more reliant on one joke. "Jitsuroku Kitty Keiji (The True Story of Detective Kitty)" parodies the overkill in your typical action flick. The title heroine (Sunaha Suzuki), a tough babe with pouty lips and cool shades, stolidly pursues a fleeing shoplifter (Kenichi Endo) through an amusement park, blasting away at him with an arsenal of large-caliber weaponry -- and never putting a scratch on him. The gag soon gets old, but Suzuki remains watchable throughout -- mainly for having chosen the right shade of lipstick.

The entire project, in fact, proves that talented directors and actors can still make a big impact with little more than chutzpah and imagination. For all their self-imposed limitations, the "Deka Matsuri" films pack more entertainment than most of the over-produced comedies coming out of Hollywood. Though it helps if you know who Yusaku Matsuda is.

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