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Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2003
Directors go at it, reel to reel
As a reviewer of Japanese movies, I sometimes think I missed something by not going all the way with video games. I did all right until the '90s, when the simple pleasures of Pac Man and Sonic the Hedgehog began to give way to more complex combat and role-playing games at which my son, then just out of kindergarten, could beat me like a gong.
Now, eons later in game-world time, a new generation of Japanese directors is coming up who may or may not have mastered those games, but have definitely absorbed their aesthetic. Exhibit A is Ryuhei Kitamura who, since his 1997 debut "Down to Hell" and his elevation to international cult status with the 2001 action/horror hit "Versus," has become best known for extended fight scenes that could have come straight from the arcades. Boring stuff like plot and character finish a distant second to ornate atmospherics, macho posturing and cool fight moves, usually involving acrobatics that ordinary mortals could execute only with bionic leg implants.
I have nothing against a director who can do this sort of thing well -- and Kitamura does it very well indeed. But I can only take about 10 minutes of it before I start to wonder when the acrobatics are going to end and the story is going to begin. In a Kitamura film, though, the story is little more than a series of well-trod narrative bridges connecting the action, with tension often being supplied by two tough guys (or, in the case, of this year's "Azumi," a tough girl and guy) facing each other down until the swords or guns come out. This is a 10-year-old boy's -- or a game designer's -- idea of drama and it works fine on the playground or in the game center. On the screen, though, it soon becomes tiresome unless you can (and I can't) put yourself into the action, thumbs on the buttons.
Kitamura's new film, "Aragami" has the same two-guys-in-a-room premise of his 2001 "Alive." But where "Alive" is set in a near future in which human prisoners are used as so many lab animals, "Aragami" unfolds in a mythical past, in which gods walk the earth -- and inhabit a remote temple seemingly designed by a roadie for a heavy metal band. (The Buddha statue looks as though he's about to blow fire out his mouth.)
One stormy night, two samurai stumble into the temple. One supports the other, who is barely alive after being wounded in battle. They are greeted by a lynx-eyed woman in kimono and the temple master (Masaya Kato), a handsome fellow with a long mane of reddish hair and an unsettling gaze. Suffice it to say, when the wounded samurai (Takao Osawa) awakes he finds himself miraculously healed -- and his comrade dead.
The temple master offers the samurai food and a strange new drink: French wine. He also tells his guest that he is, not a human, but a god of combat -- an aragami. He invites him to fight mano-a-mano and stirs him to anger with a disturbing -- and disgusting -- revelation. But how can a mere mortal defeat a god? The aragami, understanding the difficulty, presents the samurai with a choice of weapons that includes a newfangled, field-leveling pistol. Let the battle begin!
"Aragami" is less gamelike than much of Kitamura's previous work. Suspense builds, characters develop and even gags fly pretty much as they would in an orthodox samurai movie. Veteran action star Kato does a dryly sardonic, subtly creepy turn as the aragami, but once the fighting starts he and costar Osawa morph into all-but-indestructible action figures. Mortal Kombat may be a fun game, but for this nonplayer Kitamura's Immortal Kombat spinoff became an endurance contest.
Similar in theme, yet radically different in execution, is Yukihiko Tsutsumi's "2 LDK," which is on same bill with "Aragami." The two films are being promoted as a directorial "duel" -- a gimmick that is too clever by half: Two directors duke it out with films about two characters duking it out! On the coolness scale, Kitamura is clearly the winner, but Tsutsumi, who has also previously made a two-guys-in-a-room movie, "Chinese Dinner" (2000), arguably has more fun with his material.
His duelists are roommates who share a 2 LDK flat -- not the usual rabbit hutch but something a foreign bond trader might rent in Moto-Azabu on the company dime, complete with a marble fish pond and a living room that, with a higher ceiling, would make a nice three-man basketball court. The roomies -- the flame-haired Rana (Maho Nonami) and raven-haired Kimi (Eiko Koike) -- are, respectively, a struggling actress and an idol. Unbeknownst to each other, they have auditioned for the same role in a gangster flick and are anxiously awaiting a call from their agents.
Rana, the show business elder of the two, is bossy, flashy and obviously ran with the wrong crowd in high school. Kimi, meanwhile, is a middle-class priss, who labels her eggs with a magic marker and has a snit fit when she finds Rana's hair on her soap. Naturally they loathe each other.
In moving this pair from sitcom bickering to homicidal rage in the space of one busy evening, Tsutsumi can't help straining credulity. Even so, he escalates the mayhem with a sadistic ingenuity, while understanding his characters on more than a superficial, start-the-catfight level. When Rana finally snaps -- after her hair dryer breaks on a stubborn tangle -- we know exactly why, even if we would never think, as she does, of using the remains to zap poor Kimi in the bathtub.
The climax, however, is all-too predictable, especially coming from a Japanese male director. "2 LDK" ends as a misogynistically absurd comedy. A smarter gimmick for a Kitamura-Tsutsumi match-up would have been to, not let them fall into their accustomed grooves, but force them to switch sets of characters and direct against type. Rana as the aragami -- that would have been one scary movie.