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Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2003

A taste of his own . . . criticism


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Kazuyuki Izutsu
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Japanese
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Movie critics on Japanese television used to be indistinguishable from movie flacks. The most notorious was Nagaharu Yodogawa, the kindly white-haired host of "Nichiyo Eiga Gekijo (Sunday Foreign Film Theater)" on TV Asahi, who presented hundreds of Hollywood films to a large and adoring audience from 1966 until shortly before his death in 1998. Off screen, Yodogawa was a highly knowledgeable and often acerbic film scholar. But on screen he never spoke a negative word.

News photo
Toshiyuki Nishida in "Geroppa!"

The whole idea of coolly eviscerating films on camera -- in the manner of the BBC's Barry Norman -- or even arguing about them energetically -- like Roger Ebert and the late Gene Siskel -- was long alien to the Japanese TV mentality. Comics could spoof the latest Hollywood hit, but the usual stance of the local film "journalist" or "critic" was enthusiasm, slavish or otherwise.

Then along came Kazuyuki Izutsu, the mustachioed, wryly grinning director of comedies like "Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai" (1997) and musical dramas like "Nodo Jiman" (1998) and "Big Show! Hawaii ni Utaeba" (1999), mostly set in and around his native Kansai. Bucking the stream of tatemae happy talk about movies on the tube, Izutsu was, in his appearances on late-night shows, all wise-cracking, straight-shooting honne. Visiting theaters with a young female assistant (who provided the necessary giggles and "oh really" 's), Izutsu would slag the film on review or simply doze off, as if he were in his own living room. The audience loved his irreverent approach, with its dislike of pretension, and Izutsu found himself more in demand as a TV talent than as a director.

Having realized, however, that he has to walk the walk as well as talk the talk, Izutsu has released his first film in four years -- "Geroppa! (Get Up!)," whose title is a Japanized lyric from the James Brown hit "Sex Machine." Though this is a typical Izutsu film in its Kansai setting, earthy characters and musical interludes, "Geroppa" reflects Izutsu's new status as a tart-tongued TV star. After proclaiming his boredom with so many movies so loudly, he's had to sweat harder to make his own film entertaining -- and the strain shows. The quirky humor and easy charm of his earlier work has given way to overplayed gags and overwrought melodrama, slammed home hard enough to keep all but the comatose awake.

Izutsu never quite loses sight of the characters he is putting through their strenuous paces. He likes them, understands them, and occasionally makes their various predicaments funny and affecting. But mostly he pounds away. I found myself wishing I were sitting 20 rows farther back or in my own living room, free to be as snarky as I pleased.

Izutsu's unlikely hero is Habara (Toshiyuki Nishida), a porky, big-hearted yakuza oyabun (boss) who is broke, out on bail and about to go to prison. On his to-do list before heading to the slammer is the dissolution of his gang -- he wants his boys to go straight and avoid his fate. But when he makes the announcement, at a family restaurant, his three young kobun (underlings) burst into tears and beg him to reconsider.

Also on the list is a reunion with his daughter Kaori (Takako Tokiwa), whom he has not seen in 25 years. Torn with guilt over his fatherly neglect, he treasures a drawing of him that Kaori made as a little girl. What if he tracks her down and she rejects him? A likely outcome -- but he must find her, regardless.

Finally, and one would think most do-ably, he wants to see his idol, James Brown, who is coming to Nagoya for a concert. But instead of scoring a ticket, his second-in-command Kaneyama (Ittoku Kishibe), who is also a Brown fan, orders the three kobun to kidnap Brown and make him sing for the oyabun -- a command performance, so to speak. The boys carry out this loony plan, but instead of the Hardest Working Man in Show Business, they end up with one Willie (Willie Raynor), a Brown impersonator.

Willie, it turns out, is in the employ of Kaori -- now the manager of a small talent agency that books an all-impersonator show around the country. He becomes the film's McGuffin -- the object that the principals end up chasing, though the real climax of the story lies elsewhere, in the coming clash between father and daughter.

The yakuza-boss-as-James-Brown-fan gag must have sounded hilarious to Izutsu and his producer as they hashed over the film in a soul music bar, but onscreen it is more forced than funny. Nishida, who has made a career playing slobby salt-of-the-earth types, shakes his booty hard enough, but is neither much of a gangster nor a soul shouter. (Wisely, Izutsu never shows a clip of the real Godfather of Soul, who would have blown his star away with one flick of his cape.)

Worse, the kidnapping plot is not only brain-dead but also offensive, especially when a smirking Kaneyama makes the middle-aged Willie dance and sing at swordpoint. This sort of degrading racist comedy has been taboo in Hollywood for decades, but Izutsu either never heard about it, or thinks that as a self-proclaimed "people's entertainer," he is giving the local audience what it wants. He may know his R & B -- the soundtrack is full of classic gems -- but how well does he understand the culture that produced it?

Here's how to find out: Screen "Geroppa" with its director and James Brown side by side and an African-American audience in attendance. Sounds like great television, doesn't it? For once, though, I don't think Izutsu would have the last word.

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