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Wednesday, Oct. 29, 2003
Alone together in a demimonde of death with a life of its own
Genjiro Arata doesn't have the best of luck with film titles, at least as far as direct English translations go. The katakana title of his first film, "Faza Faka," hinted at the central story -- a teenage girl's struggle against her sexually abusive stepfather -- without offending the Japanese audience. Suffice it to say, the film, based on an autobiographical novel by Shungiku Uchida, desperately needed a new English title -- and got one: "Girl of the Silence."
Eight years later Arata is back with "Akame Shijuha-taki Shinju Misui (Attempted Love Suicide at Akame Shijuha-taki Falls)" -- a mouthful in either language, but clunkier in English. Again the film is based on a novel -- the 1998 Naoki Prize winner by Chokitsu Kurumatani.
The novel, unread by me, is a modern attempt at an old, quintessentially Japanese form -- the watashi shosetsu, or "I novel." Influenced by the work of 19th-century French naturalists, the prewar watashi shosetsu was confessional fiction, with little concern for larger social or political issues. In the hands of a Shiga Naoya or Natsume Soseki, however, these novels presented a densely textured picture not only of the hero's inner life, but the period and place as well.
Arato's "Akame" brings the sensibility of the watashi shosetsu into the present day. The characters and their surroundings -- down to the soft drinks and sweets they consume -- are throwbacks to the Japan of a generation or more ago. Japanese filmmakers typically resort to this period-drama-in-the-present approach when they are on a tight budget or, especially in the case of older directors, have simply forgotten which decade they're in.
Arata is different. He had the money and time to film "Akame" in all four seasons, and in Cinemascope as well. Viewed in the recently refurbished Pole Pole Higashi Nakano theater, through the lens of cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu, "Akame" has a rich, if somber, palette, and a startling visual presence. The falls at Akame Shijuha-taki look not just pretty, but chillingly cold.
Also, Arata is aware his story is set in the here and now -- he simply chooses to ignore the fact. Instead, he depicts his hero, a high-strung writer, as out of step with not only his own time, but with everyone around him. Nearly every act or encounter is charged with symbolism -- or danger, as in a dream. "Girl of the Silence" occupied a similar borderland, but the heroine's plunges into a fantasy world were more clearly marked as such. In "Akame," the hero has stepped into an alternative reality where time has stopped. It's a strange reality, and "Akame" is a strange film -- halfway between a period piece and an avant-garde experiment; a darkly interior drama shot through with eroticism and pawky humor. Though literary, "Akame" is not a literally minded film -- it breathes, heavily, with a life of its own.
Its hero, Yoichi Ikushima (Takijiro Onishi), begins his journey in Amagasaki, a gritty port city near Osaka. Broke and alone, he has his first odd encounter with a long-haired old man (Yuya Uchida) who borrows a light from his cigarette -- and slips him a 10,000 yen note. He soon finds a job preparing kushiyaki (skewered meat and other comestibles) for Seiko (Michiyo Okusu), a sultry, worldly wise restaurant proprietress. She instantly sizes him up as a lost soul, but takes a liking to him nonetheless. She sets him up in a 4 1/2-mat room in a run-down rooming house, equipped with a cutting board, knives and big refrigerator.
He sets stolidly to work, running sticks through meat with nothing to keep him company but a well-thumbed dictionary. The tall, tough boy who delivers the meat takes a seething dislike to him, while the other rooming house residents, all members of the demimonde, treat him with barely disguised contempt. One is the long-haired old man -- a crusty tattoo artist whose clients and hangers-on are yakuza. Another is a plump, slatternly whore whose occupational noises echo through the paper-thin walls of Ikushima's room. Still another is Aya (Shinobu Terajima), a brash young woman of the mizushobai ("water world" of cabarets and bars). She is curious about the new boarder, but wonders, like everyone else, what he is doing in their closed little world.
Though a sensitive intellectual, Ikushima bears up grimly, if nervously, against this hostility and indifference. His neighbors and even total strangers are forever bursting or sauntering into his room, without so much as an "ojama shimasu." They make threats, requests, demands. By going along -- delivering a pistol for the tattoo artist, going on a dodgy errand for Seiko -- he begins to win their grudging acceptance, if not respect.
It is Aya, though, who drags him, blinking and wary, from his shell. A child of the underworld herself -- her back is resplendent with a mythical bird of heaven, the work of the tattoo artist -- she wants to escape it and sees Ikushima as a bridge. She brings him first ripe cherries, then her body, then her dreams. He takes everything in with a look of permanent surprise -- he has been alone too long to easily accept human companionship, let alone love. But when she asks him to take her "out of this world," he is ready to comply.
Newcomer Takijiro Onishi is too intense by half, but he understands Ikushima's stubborn determination to purge himself of his past. Stabbing chunk after chunk of meat, he seems to be exorcising personal demons. The veterans around him, especially Michiyo Okusu as the jaded but equally lonely Seiko, add distinctive presences, but it is Shinobu Terajima as Aya who takes the greatest chances. The daughter of yakuza movie diva Junko Fuji, Terajima brings some of her mother's commanding screen presence, as well as an erotic charge and emotional hunger too raw and immediate for the Toei lot of the 1960s. In a film half in love with easeful death, she is a standing invitation to life.