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Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2003

Happy days in kimono

Asura no Gotoku

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yoshimitsu Morita
Running time: 135 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

The literary and cinematic scandals of yesteryear often end up as classics, dutifully studied and ritually celebrated. Once banned in Boston, James Joyce's "Ulysses" was later proclaimed the greatest novel of the 20th century. "Bonnie and Clyde," which once scandalized critics with its violence, is now considered a landmark of American cinema. Many a sensation, however, fades into irrelevance or obscurity. Who today reads "Peyton Place" or watches "I Am Curious Yellow?'

News photo
(From left) Shinobu Otake, Hitomi Kuroki, Kyoko Fukada and Eri Fukatsu in "Asura no Gotoku"

"Asura no Gotoku (Like Asura)" falls into the former category. This TV series, based on a novel by Kuniko Mukoda, shocked with its frank talk about female sexuality and family relationships when it first aired in 1979, but is today considered a masterwork of the homu dorama (home drama) genre. Now Yoshimitsu Morita ("Kazoku Game," "Shitsurakuen") has directed a film version that opened the Tokyo International Film Festival and is a major Toho release.

The film may follow the outline of the TV series, but rather than try to update -- and re-energize -- its story of four adult daughters agitated by their elderly father's infidelity, Morita pours a soothing balm of nostalgia over it. Though "Asura" is set in the late '70s, years after the first waves of sexual liberation washed over Japan's baby boomers, its family exists in a Japanesque eternity, with few signs that the world has moved on.

Also, though the talk about matters sexual may have thrilled the show's original viewers, in Morita's film the racier lines are delivered by women who, far from challenging traditional values and attitudes, embody them. For all their surface naughtiness, we never doubt their essential nice-girlness, as defined by the standards of 1959. With its slapsticky stabs at humor and blatant attempts to warm hearts, there is something cloying about "Asura." As a homage to the original show it may succeed, but it ends up looking dated. It is less "Sex In the City," Japanese style, more "Happy Days" in kimono.

The "Asura" of the title refers to a Hindu goddess whose beautiful face belies her tempestuous nature. In the film, the first Asura-like character we meet is the excitable Takiko (Eri Fukatsu), the third daughter of the Takezawa clan, who calls her three sisters together for an emergency meeting. Her big news: Their father (Tatsuya Nakadai) is seeing another woman, whose 10-year-old son may be his love child. The other sisters are skeptical -- until Takiko produces photos taken by a gormless private investigator she has hired. With the proof in front of them, they vow to never tell their saint of a mother (Kaoru Yachikusa).

The revelation not only brings the sisters together, but brings to the surface problems they thought they had hidden or buried. The eldest -- the widowed Tsunako (Shinobu Otake) -- is a flower-arrangement teacher who may look the soul of kimonoed propriety, but is having an affair with a married man. Meanwhile, second sister Makiko (Hitomi Kuroki) may seem to be living the Japanese dream with her salaryman husband and two adorable kids, but she suspects that hubby is cheating. Takiko, a librarian with the stereotypical glasses and prim air, is fading into spinsterhood until the detective, a socially inept type with comic facial tics, starts courting her. Her first instinct is to fend him off -- she is too much the eternal virgin to feel comfortable with any man, however harmless. Her second is to hide their budding relationship. Finally, family baby Sakiko (Kyoko Fukada) is shacked up with a hunky, thick-skulled boxer, but is not ready to tell her parents the truth.

In the course of the film, however, all is revealed, together with tears, laughter, accusations and reconciliations. All the while, Mother and Father float like rubber ducks in the ocean, serenely oblivious to the storms raging around them -- or are they?

In answering this question, "Asura no Gotoku" may provide twists and surprises, but it is homu dorama of the by-now thoroughly conventional sort, in which audience values are confirmed, not challenged. Everyone, even errant Dad, is finally revealed as yasashi nihonjin (gentle-spirited Japanese) to the core.

Also, though the cast is first-class, it is required to do little more than mug for the funny scenes and look appropriately earnest for the serious ones. While veteran Nakadai can do this sort of thing in his sleep, the women expend more effort, but mostly to telegraph every emotion to the inattentive. After all, folks, it's television.

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