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Wednesday, June 30, 2004

Ryu Murakami's number is up



69

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Lee Sang ll
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens July 10
[See Japan Times movie listings]

How was your 1969? A student at the University of Michigan at the time, I grew my hair into a Bob Dylan halo, blew my mind with LSD and got tear-gassed in a demonstration at the U.S. Justice Department that Martha Mitchell famously compared to the Russian Revolution. Am I boring you already?

News photo
Satoshi Tsumabuki (right) and Masanobu Ando in "69"

Born in 1952, writer Ryu Murakami spent that iconic year in high school and, if the film made from his 1987 autobiographical novel, "69," is any indication, was more interested in goofing off and impressing girls than protesting the Vietnam War. Though living next to the Sasebo Naval Base, which was then funneling troops and supplies to Vietnam and was a magnet for demonstrators, the film's roguish hero (Satoshi Tsumabuki) and his pals view the whole '60s thing from a distance, with a mixture of mockery and envy.

They peer curiously through the wire fence surrounding the base, but scamper away at the sight of a uniform. (The thought of actually interacting with these alien creatures called GIs never occurs). Their first big idea for an antiwar action is to toss firecrackers over the fence. They are, in short, less protesters than pranksters. Meanwhile, high school remains high school, where the dramas of adolescent male lust and longing play out in a kind of eternity.

Directed by Lee Sang Il ("Ai Chong," "Borderline") and scripted by the omnipresent Kankuro Kudo ("Ping Pong," "Kisarazu Cats Eye," "Zebraman"), "69" is not a film for nostalgic Japanese boomers who battled the kidotai (riot cops) with staves. It is for their children, for whom the '60s are as distant, if romantic, as the era of the Shinsengumi.

Commercially, this is the viable solution. Masato Harada's "Totsunyu Seyo Asama Sanso Jiken" (2002) and Banmei Takahashi's "Hikari no Ame" (2001) explored the period's violent radical fringes, but the mass audience mostly stayed away. On the other hand, Kudo's fast and frantic youth pics, including last year's hit "Kisarazu Cats Eye," appeal to the tastes of under-25s, who have been raised on the uninhibited antics of comedy duo Downtown and anime character Crayon Shinchan, not the solemnities of "Ashita no Joe" and "Kyojin no Hoshi."

But as trendy as it may be, "69" is honest enough about its characters and their motives. I have no idea how accurately it portrays the escapades of the young Murakami, but what it says about a certain type of boy, for whom criminal prankishness is the highest form of performance art, is spot on.

Watching a porky PE instructor lead her lithesome female charges in calisthenics, Ken (Tsumabuki) and best bud Adama (Masanobu Ando -- and Adama's his nickname, his real character name being Yamada) begin by discussing the iniquities of groupism and end up by dreaming up a plan for getting all those oppressed girls to scream and rip off their clothes. Inspired by articles about wild rock concerts in the West, Ken proposes a school rock festival (while imagining himself as the drummer who works the crowd into a frenzy).

Ken's main target is one Lady Jane (Rina Ota, real character name -- Matsui), a tall, slim beauty who floats through the halls like a teenage dream. He mentally casts her as the star of a steamy underground movie that he, of course, will direct.

Before Ken can put his plans into action, however, he runs into opposition from the high-school powers-that-be, including the hulking, horse-faced Aihara (Kusaku Shimada), a PE teacher who punches and drop kicks Ken every time he sees his smirking face. Radicalized -- or rather irked to new heights of insolence -- Ken has another brainstorm: Transform the school into one big barricade and paint it over with revolutionary slogans. Together with his pals, including the nerdy Iwase (Yuta Kanai) and the easygoing Masugaki (Yu Emoto), and aided by the school's handful of genuine radicals, Ken carries out this scheme with the sort of thoroughness he never devoted to English grammar. The cops, however, take an interest in their handiwork -- and Ken, Adama and company are looking at more than another merry chase through the Sasebo alleys.

Winner of the 2000 Pia Film Festival award for his debut feature, "Ai Chong," Lee films these goings-on with a dota bata (knock about) energy that rarely lets up. It is Kudo's script, however, that is the film's driving force, popping with verbal inventiveness, and crackling with gags that range from the idiotic to the surreal. He even adds touches of lyricism, as when Ken, forced to sit in seiza (i.e., with his ankles tucked under him) in the hallway for a misdeed, sees Lady Jane approaching alone and rose petals fall on her like rain.

As played by Tsumabuki ("Joze to Tora to Sakanatachi"), Ken is the latest in the quickly lengthening line of free-spirited Kudo heroes who charm their way through most problems, and con their way through the rest. Obnoxious? Verging on it, but not really. Tsumabuki, hot since his breakthrough in the hit comedy "Waterboys," is too nice, finally, to get on anyone's nerves (save those of the entire school staff).

Meanwhile, costar Masanobu Ando ("Kids Return") plays Adama as a comically dim foil. Like most of the other cast members, he is required to not act so much as react to Tsumabuki's hyperkinetic Ken.

"69" makes the upheavals of the era look like little more than youthful, irrational exuberance -- appealing in these downbeat times, but essentially harmless. For many Japanese teens, untroubled by the specter of an untimely death in a Vietnam jungle, that, to paraphrase Walter Cronkite, was the way it was. Good times, lucky people.



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