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Wednesday, Dec. 10, 2003
Through the laughter darkly
When do black comedies go over the line into complete blackness? Usually, as in Stanley Kubrick's "A Clockwork Orange," when the hero commits an act of violence so shocking that even snarky 14-year-olds choke on their giggles.
This can be a dangerous line to cross, especially if the hero is supposed to be a sympathetic type. Kubrick crossed it repeatedly, showing his hero Alex for exactly what he was: a punk with the morality of a flea. Kubrick's control over the film's message and tone was absolute and the result was less a comedy, black or otherwise, than a prophecy.
Tetsuo Shinohara ("Hatsukoi," "Inochi") has attempted something similar in "Showa Kayo Daizenshu" (literal translation: "Big Collection of Showa Era Songs"), albeit with a more manga-esque take. His story of amoral punks battling spoiled middle-aged women has a built-in absurdity -- but it is hardly fluff. Like the best satire, of whatever genre or era, its exaggerations illuminate certain truths with a clarity that realism often lacks. It may not cut like Kubrick's icy scalpel, but it has a smart bite. Thinking I was walking into a gimmicky farce, I walked out knowing I'd seen the best black comedy of the year. OK, scratch "black."
It begins in present-day Chofu, where the six heroes, all drifting through their early 20s, have become close friends and co-conspirators. At night they gather at an abandoned pier to sing songs from the Showa Era (1926-89) -- mainly '60s pop standards. (Alex, with his Beethoven, may have had better taste, but the sextet's affection for their music is similar.) They even go in for old-time costumery -- another Kubrickian touch.
One day one of their number, the lanky, soft-faced Sugioka (Masanobu Ando), ventures out, toting his favorite knife. In the street, he bumps into a middle-aged woman (Shungiku Uchida) in a hurry. He follows her, tries to pick her up and, when she curtly rejects him, slashes her. He watches the blood spray out with a bemused detachment, then walks away, his irritation replaced with a surge of satisfaction.
The victim, we see, is not just another housewife, but a member of a circle of six women -- all past 30 and all with the first name Midori. One of the Midoris, the feisty Henmi (Kayoko Kishimoto), discovers the body and alerts the other four. Using a clue picked up at the murder scene, they soon track down Sugioka. This, they decide, is more fun than the karaoke sessions that had been their only real bond. (They also prefer Showa Era tunes.) They then proceed to terminate the evil-doer using a similar weapon -- if a more spectacular method.
Naturally, this means war. Using a tip from a spacey college girl (Miwako Ichikawa), the boys soon ID the Midoris and, with the boyish but bloody-minded Ishihara (Ryuhei Matsuda) in the lead, go off in search of weapons.
The escalation that follows is handled with subtlety and wit, instead of devolving immediately into a cartoon. Working a script by Sugio Omori, Shinohara places the two opposing groups squarely in their proper social milieu. They may be familiar types -- the young slacker male and the pushy middle-aged female -- but they express more than typical attitudes. Instead, they and the other characters act out their true feelings, including murderous rage, with a matter-of-factness that is funny -- and observant. When real communities and relationships are replaced by random collections of social atoms, as is happening in today's Japan, old restraints dissolve and group violence becomes a kind of elixir for deadened souls, with a bigger charge than any video game.
Also, playing at Shibuya's Cinema East West is "Seventh Anniversary" by Isao Yukisada, who received the Japan Academy's award for Best Director in 2001 for his breakthrough hit "Go." Shot with a DV camera, the film begins as a daffy, if ingenious, romantic comedy, but hits deeper notes on the way to its surprise ending (though this may not come as a surprise to women who have been through an endless search for Mr. Right).
The heroine, Lulu (Sayuri Yamada), is a hopeless romantic, who can't help falling for Mr. Wrong and getting unceremoniously dumped. Every time she's ditched, she passes a kidney stone and saves it, as a reminder of her love -- and loss. After she has an affair with a nice, if memory-impaired, guy -- and is confronted with his wife and child -- Lulu collects her seventh stone, a beauty that she has made into a ring. At the urging of a friend's jewel-expert lover, she auctions it for a fabulous sum and falls for the winner, the smooth, charming Okunuki (Kanji Tsuda).
Together they start a business buying and selling kidney stones passed by jilted women. Lulu has inadvertently started a boom. Her success pales, however, as she starts to doubt the rightness of placing a price on love.
Yamada is a natural comedian who can play a ditz for laughs, while making us fall in love with her and feel her pain. Her film also teaches a valuable, if often ignored, lesson: Your best friend may be your best romantic bet, even if he doesn't make your kidneys quiver.