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Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2003

Life as we know it on planet V6

Kisarazu Cat's Eye

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Fuminori Kaneko
Running time: 123 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Why are Japanese TV comics so hyper? It hasn't always been this way, as anyone who has seen the more leisurely paced rakugo can testify. Rakugo comics not only do routines hundreds of years old, but perform them sitting down.

News photo
Sho Sakurai, Wakana Sakai, Jun'ichi Okada, Takashi Tsukamoto and Ryuta Sato in "Kisarazu Cat's Eye"

I used to think TV comics here had to shout louder and act crazier because their audience often uses the tube as a screen saver -- that is, to serve as a soothing background, not to watch.

If "Kisarazu Cat's Eye," a comedy directed by Fuminori Kaneko and scripted by Kankuro Kudo ("Go," "Ping Pong"), is any indication, something else is going on as well. A film audience can't easily multitask or wander off (save mentally). Maybe the machinegun spritzing and frantic overacting are the ganbaru ("give it your all") ethic taken to an extreme. Maybe it's a way of letting go after all those years of being pressured to look, act and think like everyone else. Maybe it's a sneaky way of getting middle-aged reviewers to flee the theater with a throbbing headache, leaving the film to its real audience -- teenage fans of the show and star Jun'ichi Okada, a member of the popular boy band V6.

But this reviewer stuck it out, pounding temples and all. I have to say I laughed a few times and even when my mind was reeling, the energy and whack inventiveness carried me along. It reminded me of The Beatles' "A Hard Day's Night" revved up to triple speed. Not to mention "Trainspotting," "Ghost Busters" and "Leningrad Cowboys Go America." Oh, and I almost forgot "Temptation Island."

The set up is a staple of Japanese melodrama. Kohei Tabuchi, aka "Bussan" (Jun'ichi Okada), is told he is dying of cancer and has six months left, at the most. Only 21 and feeling as young as he looks, Bussan is outraged by this diagnosis. He has so much to live for -- the amateur baseball games he plays, the beers he guzzles with his four teammates and the devotion of the cute, if spacey, Mokko (Wakana Sakai). In short, the utterly carefree life he leads in Kisarazu, a seaside town in Chiba Prefecture.

All five members of the Kisarazu Cat's Eye team, in fact, are unfettered sorts who spend most of their time hanging out at the Yakyukyu (Baseball Crazy) bar run by one of their number, the wild-haired, madly grinning Master (Ryuta Sato). When Bussan returns to the bar with his sad news, not only Master, but two of his teamies -- the blond, motor-mouthed Ani (Takashi Tsukamoto) and the pointy-haired goofball Utchi (Yoshinori Okada) -- are waiting.

In almost any other movie Bussan and his pals would spend at least a couple beats being po-faced and sensitive -- but in this one they have the attention span and tragic sense of grade-school boys who flushed their Ritalin. When they hear the sound of festival music they are immediately out the door and into the street, where they spy another pal, the babe-magnet Bambi (Sho Sakurai) riding a float, having been voted Mr. Kisarazu the second year in a row. Bussan is soon on the float with him, shaking his booty as though he hasn't got a care in the world. Well, I suppose it beats sitting down with "Chicken Soup for the Soul."

Did I say there was a story? That night boys end up in a new cabaret with Korean hostesses resplendent in chima chogori. Bussan gets close to the prettiest, Yukke (Yung Sona), who speaks charmingly broken Japanese. A fateful encounter, as it turns out.

Did I say there was a story? Later, on the beach, the boys discover the corpse of Oji (Shinta Furuta), a porky homeless guy they used to hang with. Then Oji springs back to life! Delighted, they celebrate by giving him a houseboat to live in. How did they raise the cash? Who knows? -- though they have a secret occupation: burglary.

Did I say there was a story? A real-life rock group, Kishidan, asks the boys to be their warm-up band for a charity concert they plan to hold in Kisarazu. Since the Kishidan guys look and act like a cartoonist's idea of rightist punks (huge quiffs and bad attitudes), Bussan and the boys agree. They also say yes to the Kishidan request that they write -- gasp! -- a love song.

Did I say there was a story? Well, there's Bussan's momentous meeting with his hero, V Cinema star Sho Aikawa; an awkward reunion with Mirei-sensei (Hiroko Yakushimaru), a teacher he had a crush on in high school; and the pregnancy of his stepmom, a former stripper named Rose. Then Mirei gets a letter from an old flame, who says he wants to marry her. His arrival in Kisarazu finally starts the plot dominoes falling.

What does any of this have to do with cancer? Amazingly, Kudo's puzzle palace of a script and Kaneko's serviceable direction begin to make something out of these slender threads. Also, the film is not a retread of the TV show, but a sharp departure from it. Remember all those Doraemon movies where Nobita and his pals end up in the distant past or an alternate universe? Kudo's imagination runs on a similar track, though at a far faster pace. He jams in not only most of the characters from the show, but also myriad plot points, pop culture references -- and even a couple of rave-up concert numbers.

Is it necessary to prep for the movie by seeing the TV show DVDs? Not really, but I'd recommend a stiff jolt of caffeine before walking in the theater. Or wait for the video -- and play it on slo-mo.

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