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Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2004
Got something for everyone
Japanese audiences like films with crowded stories that throw a bit of everything into the mix, like the makunouchi box lunches that have something to suit every palate. A piece of shrimp and slapsticky farce for you, a bit of fish and weepy melodrama for me. Outlanders, however, often find it hard to stomach the resulting mishmash. Where is the consistency, they wonder? The logic? The third act?
Based on Hideo Yokoyama's best-selling 2002 novel, "Hanochi (Half a Confession)" is one such mixed bag of a movie. Kiyoshi Sasabe has produced a courtroom drama with elements that, in local box-office terms, are all but foolproof. Want psychological suspense, bureaucratic intrigue and family drama that could draw tears from a stone? "Hanochi" has it all, in generous portions.
No wonder producers fought over the film rights to the book. The winners, a consortium lead by distributor Toei, now have the biggest domestic hit of the new year. But those looking for an entertainment package based on the John Grisham model, with a coherent, focused narrative and a big courtroom scene in which wrongs are righted, may leave "Hanochi" disappointed. Clutching a damp hankie maybe, but disappointed.
The story begins with what should be an open-and-shut case. Kaji (Akira Terao), a former police detective with a sterling character and unblemished record, turns himself into the local police, saying that he has murdered his Alzheimer's-afflicted wife. Shiki (Kyohei Shibata), a former colleague and master interrogator, is pulled off a big case to question Kaji. But though Kaji owns up to his crime, he refuses to say what he was doing in the two days before he turned himself in. In police jargon he has delivered only "hanochi (half a confession)."
Shiki sympathizes, but is under pressure from his superiors to make him come clean. With the press pack baying at their heels, they want to get Kaji off the front pages as soon as possible. The key to the case, Shiki suspects, lies in the death, seven years earlier, of Kaji's 14-year-old son from leukemia. Meanwhile, an ambitious young woman reporter (Mayu Tsuruta) begins to suspect a cover-up. What, if anything, is he hiding?
There are more complications in store, including a gathering clash between the police bureaucracy and a fiery prosecutor (Tsuyoshi Ihara) who finds Kaji's quiet integrity compelling, and the emotional turmoil of a young judge (Hidetaka Yoshioka) who is coping with his own Alzheimer's-impaired father -- and cannot accept Kaji's choice.
Sasabe's direction may be without flair, but he has tamped down even chronic overactors (Shibata being one jaw-clenching example), while drawing the rare real performance out of them. As Kaji, Terao uses little more than his eyes to express a resignation that seems saintly -- but hides the pain of loss and regret. This, we sense from the start, is no ordinary killer, but a man with depths the film only begins to plumb before the massive gears of its plot begin to clank.
The hero of Itsumichi Isomura's "Gege (Milk White)" is also a sufferer, from a rare eye disease. He is Tadayuki Takano (Takao Osawa), a young, idealistic elementary-school teacher who gets the fateful diagnosis after noticing milky spots clouding his vision. The spots, the doctor tells him, will grow until they block out his world. Devastated, Tadayuki delivers the bad news to a kindly university teacher, who is his mentor, and his daughter Yoko (Yuriko Ishida), Tadayuki's fiancee.
No longer, though. Unwilling to make Yoko share his burden, Tadayuki drives her away and Yoko, shedding tears, journeys to Mongolia for a research project. No one, including his loving mother (Junko Fuji) and a loyal childhood friend (Seiichi Tanabe), can assuage his grief.
A wise old Buddhist priest, however, compares Tadayuki's affliction to the hard training that monks endure in the summertime. For them the end of summer, or gege, is a time of release. "So blindness will be for you," he says.
Set in Nagasaki, "Gege" sensitively evokes the pathos of its hero's dilemma against a backdrop of natural beauty. But it's also a painful, even agonizing film to watch, as we see, in a series of point-of-view shots, Tadayuki's field of vision whiten, narrow and finally disappear. In most triumph-over-disability films, the process of becoming disabled is only a starting point. In "Gege" it's the whole point. Hard to imagine a tougher Hollywood remake sale, isn't it? ("Well, uh, it's about a guy going blind.") Unless it's a movie about a guy who kills his wife. "Where," as they might say, "is the rooting interest?"