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Wednesday, Nov. 26, 2003

When in doubt, just keep on walking



Kofuku no Kane

Rating: * * * out of 5)
Director: Sabu
Running time: 87 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Takeshi Kitano has has loomed as a large, influential presence in Japanese films for more than a decade now. His style of minimalist dialogue, frontal camera angles, pawky humor and sentimental nihilism has seduced (or perhaps, infected?) many of his directing contemporaries. Some, such as longtime Kitano assistant director Hiroshi Shimizu ("Ikinai," "Chicken Heart") have succumbed to it entirely, while others, such as Kiyoshi Kurosawa ("Cure," "Kairo," "Akarui Mirai") -- once under the Kitano spell -- have since tried to shake it off, with varying degrees of success.

News photo
Susumu Terajima in Sabu's "Kofuku no Kane"

Now, just as Kitano has abandoned elements of this style himself in "Zatoichi," Sabu comes along with "Kofuku no Kane (Blessing Bell)," which looks a lot like a Kitano movie of a decade ago -- or Kitano's "Walking" commercials for Johnny Walker whisky. In other words, we see scene after scene of the hero, played by Kitano regular Susumu Terajima, walking alone across empty landscapes -- and having strange encounters, some humorous, some violent, some a combination of both.

For Sabu fans, who have come to expect kinetic excitement from the director of "Postman Blues," "Unlucky Monkey" and last year's "Drive," the new film may be a disappointing downshift from third gear to first. Whereas the typical Sabu film is mostly one long chase, with interruptions for plot -- Buster Keaton in modern Japanese guise -- "Kofuku no Kane" is a poky journey through an absurdist landscape, where nothing is quite right and no one is quite what they seem. The hero -- an unemployed Everyman -- is battered by fate and baffled by the eccentric folks he meets, but keeps plugging along, with his final destination his little house and his loving wife.

This isn't much to sustain an entire movie, even one only 87 minutes long. A more commercially minded producer than Sabu's would have told him to make "Kofuku no Kane" as a short -- or forget it.

I'm a Sabu fan, I suppose, though I've gotten itchy at the repetition in his work, down to the sameness of the chase choreography, but "Kofuku no Kane" didn't disappoint me, despite the Kitano-esque touches. Sabu remains essentially Sabu -- not Sabu trying, and failing to be Kitano Jr. Though slowed from a run to a walk, "Kofuku no Kane" still expresses Sabu's sense of the world as mostly an all right place, for all its vagaries, idiocies and crimes. This is not Kitano's darker view -- it's an energizing one. What matters most, the film says, are the simple things -- including a sympathetic ear for the most incredible of stories.

The ear belongs to Igarashi (Terajima), a factory worker who has suddenly been laid off, together with all of his mates. Instead of getting on the bus to deliver the sad news to his wife, he goes for a walk, his face a mask, his mind in turmoil. By the bank of a river, he encounters a yakuza (Kazumi Shiomi), who mumbles something about donating his liver for transplant and then plunges a knife into his own stomach.

Arrested on the spot for this "murder," Igarashi is thrown in jail, together with a real murderer -- a cook (Itsuji Itao) who has killed the lover of his cheating wife. After Igarashi is released, he finds the guy's wife, a bar hostess by trade, chatting merrily with a customer. Soon after, he runs into a burning building to save the child of a poor single mother (Ryoko Shinohara) and is given a commendation for bravery by the same cops who had busted him only a short while before.

Back on the streets again, Igarashi is hit by a car and ends up in the hospital, next to a dying old man (Seijun Suzuki) who asks him to visit his elderly wife. When he does, he finds the old woman slumped over the kotatsu, clutching a lottery ticket worth 100 million yen. The shock of her good fortune was evidently too much for her, but not Igarashi, who takes the ticket and goes window shopping. What will he buy first -- a house, a fancy foreign car or a meal at a classy restaurant? Then he meets the single mother again and his fate takes another, unexpected turn. Igarashi is about to plunge to new depths and figure out what really matters.

Terajima's taciturn hero -- he utters nothing until the end of his adventures -- may be reminiscent of Kitano's close-mouthed cop in "Hana-bi," but the crazy world he inhabits is pure Sabu. Also, Terajima, best known internationally as the suicidal gangster in Kitano's "Brother," exudes a coiled tension that speaks volumes. But his eternal silence starts to wear, especially when the mouths of the various odd fish he encounters are flapping away. This hero-as-wooden-Indian conceit would work better if the entire film were silent and the various monologues confined to intertitles.

Even so, there is something heartening about Igarashi's long slog to self-realization. In a world in which so many people are in a constant rush, viewing others as so many machines to be operated or mere mannequins to be ignored, Igarashi's reliance on his own two feet, and his willingness to listen and act without first calculating loss or gain, become affirmations of his basic humanity. Sure, he takes a wrong turn or two -- but that is also human. Best of all, he keeps on walking, no matter what. Not just out of stubbornness, but because he has someone who will listen to his stories, however wild (or true). The bell that rings for him is a blessed one indeed.



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