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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2003

Here's a mirror with two faces

Fuku no Mimi

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Chisui Takigawa
Running time: 109 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Japan's population is the fastest aging on the planet. By 2025, if current trends hold, one out of four Japanese will be over the age of 65. This will probably mean more priority seats on the trains (and more young punks lounging in them) and more gray heads at the multiplexes (assuming home theaters and pirates haven't wiped them out).

A large audience of over-50s already exists, including retirees, housewives and restructured salarymen with time to kill -- and more films are catering to it.

Kaneto Shindo, now in his 90s, has been making movies targeted at oldies for years now, including "Gogo no Yuigonjo (A Last Note)" and "Ikitai (Will to Live)." Earlier this year, Takayoshi Watanabe's "Pretty Woman" appealed to the gateball crowd with a comedy about six grannies who put on a play -- for the first time in their lives.

Now Chisui Takigawa, a TV director who adapted the horror sensation "Ring" for the small screen, has made his feature debut with "Fuku no Mimi (Lucky Ears)," a generation-gap comedy with a primary audience the same age as its large cast of industry veterans, led by star Kunie Tanaka, now a spry 71.

The film's other star, however, is 33-year-old Kankuro Kudo, a hot talent for not only his TV and film appearances, but also his scripts for the hit films "Go" and "Ping Pong." Kudo didn't write the script for "Fuku no Mimi" -- Motofumi Tomikawa, who also scripted Shohei Imamura's 1997 Cannes Palme d'Or winner "Unagi," handled that chore -- but his presence is drawing under-25s who would have otherwise stayed far, far away.

"Fuku no Mimi" itself, however, is anything but trendy -- Among its stew of comic influences are the otherworldly antics of Bill Cosby in "Ghost Dad" and the classic mirror scene in the Marx Brothers' "Duck Soup." Also, it provides uplifting life lessons that would have never occurred to Harpo or Groucho (though if Bill sees the film he will probably be taking notes).

The pairing of Tanaka and Kudo is an inspired one. All but unrecognizable as a dorky 29-year-old freeter (part-time worker), Kudo gives an all-stops-out performance that would do Jim Carrey proud, while being surprisingly precise and recognizably human. Meanwhile, Tanaka -- a chronic scenery-chewer -- tamps down his excesses, without sacrificing his trademark energy or comic skills. He may take the lead with his young partner in their pas de deux, but he doesn't try to overwhelm him or play over his head to the audience. Tanaka usually strains to be likable -- in this film, he simply is.

Kudo is Takashi Satonaka, the aforementioned freeter. Aiming to get close to a cute nurse, Kei (Shiho Takano), who once treated him in hospital, he takes a job in an Asakusa retirement home, where she now works as a staffer. On his first day, he runs into, not Kei, but an eccentric old coot, one Fujiro Fujiwara (Kunie Tanaka), who becomes fascinated with his large earlobes -- especially the one with a freckle. "You've got lucky ears," Fujiwara proclaims.

Takashi brushes him off only to learn that the old boy is dead. In other words, he was chatted up by a ghost. Creeped out, Takashi retreats to his room -- but Fujiwara pursues him, popping up in strategically placed mirrors and imitating Takashi's every flummoxed move. Fujiwara explains that he has a crush on Chidori Kanzaki (Yoko Tsukasa), an attractive home resident and former dancer, and wants to borrow Takashi's body to make his dream of love a reality.

Naturally, Takashi is appalled, but Fujiwara is persistent -- even crashing into the world of the living. Meanwhile, two other coots -- a former benshi (silent movie narrator, played by Jiro Sakagami) and unagi (eel) shop owner (Kei Tani) are competing for Chidori's affections. Then Takashi, while mooning over Kei, begins to feel twinges of interest -- or is it Fujiwara, using him like a puppet? Soon everyone in the place, led by a cross-dressing former bureaucrat (Akira Takarada), realizes that there is something very strange -- and familiar -- about the new waiter.

Takigawa plays this story strictly for laughs, segueing into light pathos in the third act. Not a hint, in other words, of the talent for horror that made his TV reputation. Instead, he gives Kudo and Tanaka freedom to go to the edge of the absurd and beyond. Their antics may get roughly physical, with Kudo mugging gormlessly away, but they nail their comic choreography with precision while making it look fun. Much of Japanese slapstick ranges from the frantic to the crude. By comparison, Kudo and Tanaka are like tap dancers with crazy -- but skilled -- feet.

The Greek chorus of retirement home residents is too precious by half, but veterans Sakagami (once a member of the Konto 55-Go manzai duo) and Tani (once a member of the Crazy Cats comedy band) work well together as romantic rivals. Yoko Tsukasa, a Toho star who worked with Yasujiro Ozu, Akira Kurosawa and Mikio Naruse, among other iconic names, is still a charismatic woman -- not a well-preserved relic. No wonder Takashi's heart goes pitter pat. She and the film hold out hope that, for the lucky ones, love and even beauty can survive the indignities of old age. Strike up the music and dance!

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