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Wednesday, Dec. 31, 2003

Remembrances of times past

Open House

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Isao Yukisada
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Iden & Tity

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tomoro Taguchi
Running time: 118 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Isao Yukisada has two films currently playing in Tokyo -- "Seventh Anniversary" and "Open House." Both feature women at the margins of society and the ends of their ropes,and who have been unlucky in love. Sensitive types who are too good (or simply eccentric) for this world, they live in their own.

News photo
Daijiro Kawaoka and Eihi Shiina in "Open House" (above); Shido Nakamura and Kazunobu Mineta in "Iden & Tity" (below)

There is one large difference, though: "Open House" was filmed in 1997, at the start of Yukisada's career; "Seventh Anniversary" in 2003, after his commercial and critical breakthrough with the 2001 hit "Go."

Produced by Shochiku, "Open House" was a victim of the studio's 1998 restructuring that included a drastic downsizing of its release slate. However, now that Yukisada is a hot director, Shochiku has decided to take the film out of the can and give it a limited release.

There is another difference as well: "Open House" is very much of its time, when young indie directors were turning out film after plotless, introspective film about postadolescent angst. Today, when younger directors, including Yukisada, are injecting more energy and entertainment into their work, "Open House" looks as dated as the characters' telephones (not a keitai in sight!). Nonetheless, like other Yukisada films, "Open House" evokes the loneliness and drift of modern lives, while understanding its characters' dilemmas. Yukisada knows them from the inside, in ways they often can't articulate themselves.

The story centers on two women who live on the same floor of the same apartment building, but are barely aware of each other's existence. One is Mitsuwa (Eihi Shiina), a sullen beauty who ekes out a living modeling for store ads. The other is Yuiko (Kaho Minami), a recently divorced woman who is being driven mad by eczema -- and her own feelings of worthlessness.

Mitsuwa soon attracts help from the unlikely source of Tomonori (Daijiro Kawaoka), a young drifter who comes across her dead-drunk in the street after she has been tossed out of a party. He takes her home and chastely spends the night with her. When she wakes the next morning, with nary a trace of a hangover, she has no memory of him or their encounter -- but decides to let him stay anyway. He's cute, harmless and eager to be of service. What else he wants is not clear -- but Mitsuwa doesn't mind, knowing exactly who has the sexual upper hand. Then a middle-aged fan enters her life, with more power to help -- and use -- her.

More muddled is Yuiko, who is busily scratching herself raw while trying to heal the gaping wound left by the breakup of her marriage. Her mother (Tokiko Kato), a queenly yet tolerant type, exudes sympathy, but Yuiko is not to be easily consoled. Adding to her woes, she is assaulted by her husband's mad former lover and a creepy admirer who turns stalker.

The title is thus at least half ironic. By opening her house, however reluctantly, Mitsuwa gains a window, however small, into the heart of another human being, at a time when her isolation is almost total. For Yuiko, on the other hand, the words "open house" represent a standing invitation to trauma and chaos. But however many locks she may put on her door, her heart has already been ripped off its hinges. All she can do is run from those who would trample it.

Likewise a throwback is "Iden & Tity," the debut feature of actor Tomoro Taguchi, who is internationally known for his work with Shinya Tsukamoto ("Tetsuo: The Iron Man," "Tetsuo II: Body Hammer") and other leading Japanese indie directors. Beginning life more than a decade ago as a comic by Jun Murakami, "Iden & Tity" traces the fall and uncertain rise of a rock guitarist during the bubble-era "band boom," when even rockers who had barely mastered three chords could aspire to TV exposure, if not 15 minutes of fame.

The hero, Nakajima (Kazunobu Mineta), is the leader of Speed, a one-hit wonder scuffling through an endless series of live-house gigs as their shot at fame and fortune swirls down the drain. Torn between the temptation to write pop junk that sells and the urge to chuck it all for the bluesy rock he loves, Nakajima is less a rock 'n' roll rebel than a nerdy, woebegone fan who never got over his adolescent obsession with Bob Dylan, or a former college classmate (Kimiko Aso) who serves as both his muse and surrogate mother.

Obviously a labor of love, "Iden & Tity" views the band boom scene sympathetically and perceptively -- Taguchi, now 46, was once a rock musician himself and knows whereof he speaks. Also, Mineta totally identifies with the character of Nakajima, making him credible even when he is having soulful talks with the spirit of Bob Dylan, who communicates only through harmonica licks.

His one-note earnestness and neediness start to wear, however, as we realize that he's never going to grow or change. He may pen a soulful ballad that wows the crowd (and more importantly, his pretty college kohai), but somehow he never gets off the starting line, professionally, emotionally and every other way but physically. I wanted to tell him to get a life -- and an attitude. Dylan may have been many things in his four-decade career, but a mope wasn't one of them.

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