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Wednesday, Nov. 5, 2003
There comes a swordsman
I've come to the conclusion that Ryuhei Kitamura really, really likes the swords in his movies. Less because they express something ineffable about the Japanese spirit, more because, by staging sword fights for the screen, he gets to live out all sorts of neat fantasies he's had since Day One (or whenever it was the young Kitamura first picked up a stick and started whacking at the air). There is a boyish glee in the cool moves and camera angles, together with the polished skills of an A-list director and the obsessions of an action otaku. In short, he enjoys messing with this stuff.
To those without a similar fixation, the fight scenes in Kitamura's films ("Versus," "Alive," "Azumi," "Aragami") seem to go on forever, in sharp contrast with the more economical -- and arguably realistic -- approach of Takeshi Kitano in "Zatoichi." But as a director, if not always as a TV talent, Kitano is a grown-up. Kitamura is still at one with the kids in the game arcade.
He is at his best in "Sky High" -- a film that comes straight from the arcade mentality and is made with an operatic intensity and flamboyance. Overripe? Certainly, but also fun.
In several of his previous films, Kitamura seemed to take all the preposterous goings-on with a seriousness that bordered on the oppressive. In "Sky High," his subject -- a titanic battle between the forces of Right (or rather righteous revenge) and Wrong that surges between the worlds of the living and the dead -- is over-the-top enough for his style.
I used to think Kitamura needed a strong-willed, easily bored producer. While watching the diminutive Ayato Ueto slice through 200 male opponents in "Azumi," I felt that after, say, 100 bodies, enough was enough. The whole exercise became as tedious as watching a teenager rack up her umpteenth point in "Biohazard."
In "Sky High," Kitamura put more stress on quality than quantity. He still turns the dial to high, with the accompanying portentous dialogue, but the setting feels just about right, particularly toward the end, when the film develops a Wagnerian charge. The story may still be absurd -- but at least it builds, instead of wallowing in the eternal banging and clanging.
It starts in present-day Tokyo. A serial murderer is on the loose who is baffling the cops with his MO -- he tears an internal organ out of young women and then suspends his victims in dramatic poses in big open spaces. (Is Kitamura referencing "Silence of the Lambs" here? I think so.) A hot-blooded detective, Kanzaki (Shosuke Tanihara), becomes determined to crack the case -- so much so that he loses track of time and sleeps at his desk, the wall behind him covered with grisly photos of the victims.
Then a colleague wakes him up and reminds him that today is his wedding. Kanzaki tears off to the church, arriving just in time to save his bride, the trusting, tender-hearted Mina (Yumiko Shaku), from an emotional meltdown.
Enough to say that, instead of glorying in this day of days, Mina ends up dead -- the killer's fourth victim. Cut to the dark, smoky, antechamber of the Other World, where an imperious young woman in black leather awaits Mina's soul. Called only Izuko (Eihi Shiina), she is the guardian of the huge, gray-metal Urami no Mon (Gate of Revenge). She gives Mina three choices: 1) Accept death and go to heaven; 2) Reject it and wander the world as a ghost; 3) Kill one person and go to hell. Unable to make up her mind and consumed with longing, Mina returns to the world of the living.
There she finds her fiance, distraught after being taken off the case -- but soon out for revenge. But if he kills the killer, Mina knows, he will go to hell. Somehow she has to save him. Then she remembers her own murder -- and a certain Kudo (Takao Osawa), and his slinky, merciless assistant. Kudo, we learn, is a geneticist with an unholy ambition and psychic powers. When he sees Mina in his lab, he mocks her -- nothing, certainly not a wimpy ghost, is about to stand in his way. Somehow Mina must stop him, before he opens the gates of hell . . .
Based on a TV Asahi show that was in turn based on a manga by Tsutomu Takahashi, "Sky High" is about as glossy a production as the Japanese film industry can mount, with 30 million yen spent on the Urami no Mon alone -- which is about the entire budget for a lot of indie art films. Kitamura and his staff put all that yen up on the screen with the by-now familiar stylistics -- oversaturated colors, oversize sets, overhyped acting.
The ripest performance is that of Osawa, who drips arrogance as Kudo, but also puts on menacing displays of swordsmanship. An evil genius he may be, a klutz he is not. The most dramatic transition, however, is that of Yumiko Shaku as Mina, who goes from sweet, virginal bride to stern-visaged warrior. One Hollywood comparison is Sarah Michelle Gellar's Buffy -- but Shaku, who also played the role in the TV Asahi series, becomes her new role suddenly and completely, with little left of her old nice-girl persona. This shift, however, throws the movie into a higher, more mythic gear. Mina, unlike Buffy, not only has otherworldly powers, but inhabits the other world herself, armed with a deadly, swift sword.
I just wish that "Sky High" had taken its theme of female empowerment to the limit. Instead, in the usual way of Japanese action movies, Tanihara's overcaffeinated Kanzaki rides to the rescue, in the most self-sacrificing way imaginable.
"Sky High" is the right title, however -- it's hard to see how Kitamura can top its slam-bang finale, with the soul of the world at stake. After this, what? Sword fights in other galaxies? But please, spare us the light sabers.