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Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2003

Strangers on the highway


Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Ryuichi Hiroki
Running time: 95 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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In Hollywood, beautiful people get the biggest roles as a matter of course, even if they are playing Joe or Jane Average. Directors Shari Berman and Robert Pulcini may have cast the schlumpy Paul Giamatti as their lead in "American Splendor," but they were making a little indie film, not big bucks entertainment. Will the film's success mean more Hollywood movies starring Real People? Maybe, if your idea of a Real Person is Johnny Depp.

News photo
Shinobu Terajima and Naomi Fujiyama in "Vibrator"

Japanese mainstream films and TV dramas, especially those targeted at the young, are even worse in this regard. Actresses who fit into the currently popular categories of pulchritude (the big-eyed gamine look, the leggy beauty-queen look, the sleek computer-generated look) get the starring roles, even as noodle-shop waitress, and even if they'd struggle to act their way out of a ramen commercial. Those who have genuine acting skill rather than merely cutesy pop-idol looks and want to play something more than the lead's best friend, often end up on the stage.

No surprise, then, that Naomi Fujiyama, who swept acting awards in 2001 playing an eccentric recluse in Junji Sakamoto's "Kao (Face)," first made her reputation in the theater. No surprise also that Shinobu Terajima, who plays a bulimic, alcoholic freelance writer in Ryuichi Hiroki's "Vibrator," is also a stage veteran. Though gorgeous in person, on screen she gives an accurate impersonation of a Real Person, early 30s, on her way to the convenience store at midnight.

Her performance, however, is so far above what commonly passes as acting in Japanese films that it exists on a plane of its own. The Japan Academy should save itself the time and trouble and send her its Best Actress trophy now (the Tokyo International Film Festival and the Yokohama Film Festival already have).

Not that her portrayal of a woman on the edge of madness, despair and finally love is a diva turn. Terajima plays with, not off, costar Nao Omori's preening, self-promoting, but ultimately understanding, truck driver. Her performance also fits Hiroki's concept of his film, which is more allusive, complex and realistic than that of the typical Japanese "problem drama." These aim to assure the audience, after the noisy exposition of the heroine's dilemma and the obligatory wringing of tears, that all will come out right in this best of Japanese worlds.

Based on a novel of the same title by Mari Akasaka, "Vibrator" offers no such easy affirmation. At the end the heroine's demons still exist, if for the moment calmed. We can only hope they don't stir again. At the same time, the film is not another gray-toned indie downer; it throbs with an infectious energy, erupts with a raw emotional force. It is an ode to the open road, leaps of faith, the transforming power of love.

Terajima plays Rei, a freelance writer buying liquor at a convenience store accompanied by quiet voices in her head when she spies a truck driver with spiky blondish hair and decides, as an intertitle expressing her thoughts explains, she wants to "eat him." She ends up in the cab of his four-ton truck, heading off to who knows where.

The driver, Okabe (Omori), greets his new traveling companion as though he had been expecting her all along. As his truck rumbles through the night streets, he eases her over her initial embarrassment until she tells him what is really on her mind. The sex that follows is fumbling, passionate and seals a bond between them. Rei begins to open up to not only Okabe, telling him of her past and her addictions, but to the adventure she has chosen.

She eagerly listens to his boasting stories of running drugs for the yakuza, of being a yakuza himself. She even imagines herself as one of the whores he used to pimp for. She joyfully absorbs all the lore of his world, particularly his slangy exchanges with fellow truckers on his CB radio. It is a new language that seems to open doors to a new, bolder self.

But for all its insecurities and anxieties, she is terrified of losing her old self. When she feels it slipping away, she finds herself staring into a void. On a gas station pavement, she retches her fear, rage and humiliation, but Okabe lifts her up, cleanses her. There is another side, we see, to this cool, smooth operator. He too is on the verge of telling his own truths.

This may sound like a fantasy of love conquering all, of the type much beloved by bad romance novelists. Okabe, however, is not a wish-fulfillment figure, just as Rei is not a stereotype of woman-as-victim. Their talk and thoughts, as scripted by Haruhiko Arai, express, with a poetic economy and force, what these two strangers-turned-lovers are and what they are becoming.

Also, as Okabe and Rei, Omori and Terajima bring a sense of inevitability to their meeting, without resorting to the usual Love At First Clinch clich. They don't meet cute; they meet lonely and hungry. They have few illusions, but have not given up hope. They emerge from their ride together like swimmers who have reached a distant shore after abandoning everything, including their lies. There is an exhausted purity about them that is beautiful. And Terajima does it all looking as though she spent three minutes, not three hours, getting ready to leave the house. I think it's called acting.

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