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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2004
Crooked path pays off
Cops and crooks aren't supposed to be pals, but in any society they often become . . . acquaintances, if not quite allies. In Japan the relationship between the two sides has long been a symbiotic one, with the police turning a blind eye to yakuza activities, as long as they stay within certain bounds, while the yakuza "support" poorly paid beat cops in ways the tax office will never discover. (Or at least that's how it was once explained to me by Tony Miyashiro, the "godfather" of Roppongi.) In other words, live and let live -- or one hand washes the other.
A true cop-crook friendship, though, is a rarity -- in Japanese movies at least. I've seen plenty of onscreen cops take a familiar, even roughly affectionate approach with the baddies -- but few exchange confidences, unburden their souls or otherwise get up close and personal. That would make them look ridiculous -- a fatal flaw in a hard-boiled hero.
But the cop played by Koji Yakusho in "Yudan Daiteki (The Hunter and the Hunted)" is soft-boiled. That is, the tousle-haired, eternally boyish Sekikawa is too good for this corrupt world -- or perhaps I should say the cop trade. Not that there aren't decent men among his colleagues and superiors, but they want results, by whatever means necessary -- and Sekikawa hasn't been getting them. Since the death of his wife, he has been too busy taking care of his 8-year-old daughter, Mika, to devote himself the expected 110 percent to his job.
When a thief rips off 600,000 yen from a local daruma doll factory, the cops are baffled, until Sekikawa comes across a grizzled middle-aged man kindly fixing Mika's bike -- and discovers a clue from the robbery in his tool box. Reluctantly, he takes out his badge . . .
The Good Samaritan, it turns out, is one Nekoda (Akira Emoto), a.k.a. "Neko (The Cat)" -- a master thief who knows all of his interrogators' tricks. Instead of trying new ones, Sekikawa thanks him for helping his daughter and apologizes for arresting him. Touched by the cop's sincerity and contrition -- a first in his line of work -- Neko decides to spill. Sekikawa is suddenly elevated from department pariah to hero.
Happy ending? Not quite, since we're not even half an hour into the movie. Soon after, Sekikawa meets a pretty day care-center teacher (Yui Natsukawa), but Mika objects to this possible replacement for her dead mother. The narrative heart of the film, however, is the relationship between Sekikawa and Neko. The latter decides to take the former under his wing and make a real crook-catcher out of him. Little do both know that this bond will last for years -- and dramatically change their lives.
This may sound like sentimental hokum -- hands across the legal waters and all that -- but first-time director Izuru Narushima presents this unusual friendship more in the style of bickering screwball comedy than warm-hearted Japanese "home drama." Also, based on a collection of short stories by veteran ex-cop Jun Iizuka, the film has a feel of observed reality, not scriptwriter vaporings. (Exaggeration for effect, maybe, but not whole-cloth fantasizing or cliched schtick.)
"Yudan Daiteki," however, is mainly a showcase for its two leads -- Yakusho and Emoto. The closest the Japanese film industry has come to Tom Hanks, Yakusho doesn't stretch very far as Sekikawa, a role that plays straight to his nice-guy image. Nonetheless, his Sekikawa is more than a lovable naif, showing flashes of professional steel under his rumpled exterior.
Yakusho is overshadowed, though, by Emoto, a veteran character actor best known abroad as the eccentric doctor in Shohei Imamura's "Kanzo Sensei (Dr. Akagi)." With a heavy-lidded, tired-looking mug that has seen (and no doubt drunk and smoked) everything, Emoto usually plays world-weary types who run the emotional gamut from gray to black.
In Neko, he creates a character more multicolored than usual, not the standard thief-with-a-heart-of-gold, but something deeper, richer, even mysterious. For his Neko is a master trickster, who laughs at the very idea of sincerity, even as he is being sincere. This is not to say he is simply toying with Sekikawa -- he likes him well enough -- but he knows the gap between them can never be closed. (Bridged, yes; closed, no.) When Sekikawa innocently starts to believe otherwise, Neko quickly brings him up short.
In its final act, "Yudan Daiteki" tries to pluck a few heartstrings, but Neko remains true to his stoic crook code through everything. He also keeps dropping pearls of thiefly wisdom. "I want to a be a first-class thief until I die," he says. "I'm taking care of my health so I can still do this when I'm 100." Given the state of pension systems in Japan and elsewhere, that might be a sensible goal for all of us.