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Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2004

A party to which you are not invited

Koi no Mon

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

Actors who also direct fall into three categories. There are those who put their actorly egos aside (or at least try to rein them in); there are those who put their actorly egos on full, preening display; and there are those who essentially invite their friends to a feature-length party.

News photo
Ryuhei Matsuda and Wakana Sakai in "Koi no Mon"

Films of the first type stand the best chance of being watchable -- and profitable. Also, the same actor can switch from making one type of film to another -- see the films of Woody Allen and Takeshi Kitano, for examples. And just because an actor stars in his own film doesn't necessarily mean it falls into the second category. Kitano may have played the title character in "Zatoichi," but he gave ample screen time to others, particularly in the big tap-dance finale that was the film's most memorable scene. (Though Kitano, being Kitano, won all his swordfights while hardly breaking a sweat.)

Suzuki Matsuo ("Chicken Heart," "Ping Pong") stays mostly in the third category with his directorial debut, "Koi no Mon (Gate of Love)," though his own performance, as a mangaka manque, is commendably from the first category.

To someone who wasn't invited to the party (that is, cast in the film), this story of a young manga artist's search for love and fame starts to resemble one of those late-night TV comedy skits that crack up the performers with every other gag -- but finally feel shapeless, pointless and interminable.

To his credit, Matsuo assembled a strong cast, starting with his two leads -- Ryuhei Matsuda and Wakana Sakai -- and even gave bit-players scenes that are miniature comic showcases. The directors and mangaka appearing in small roles and cameos -- Shinya Tsukamoto, Takashi Miike, Hideaki Anno in the former lot; Kotobuki Shiriagari, Shungiku Uchida and Naoki Yamamoto in the latter -- get moments to shine.

Moreover, unlike most tyro directors, who are winging it their first time on the set, Matsuo is a veteran playwright and stage director, whose productions have packed theaters and won major awards. He knows how to direct actors and how to shape scenes.

Films, however, have rules all of their own. One is that a comically struggling, sexually clueless mangaka does not look like Matsuda who, with his pale skin, pouting lips and androgynously fabulous looks, is a shojo manga (girls' comic-book) hero come to life.

As soon as his character, the eccentrically (and thus appropriately) named Mon Aoki, meets with a cute, shapely, ditzy OL named Koino (Sakai) on a busy Tokyo street (she treads on his hand as he is trying to pick up an interesting-looking stone), their romance is, cinematically speaking, a done deal. It's as if Billy Wilder had cast the young, gorgeous Marlon Brando instead of the young, nebbishy Jack Lemmon opposite Shirley MacLaine in "The Apartment." All of the comic will-they-or-won't-they tension would have evaporated at the first, steamy glance (even if MacLaine was doing all the steaming).

Mon and Koino soon meet again, at a company where Koino works -- and where Mon arrives late on his first day as a lowest-of-the-low part-timer

Though loudly scolded by the tyrannical boss (Toshinori Omi), Mon manfully bears up and, at a company party that evening, proclaims himself a manga geijutsuka (literally "comic artist"). In the course of the night, he gets drunk, gets pummeled by a co-worker -- and ends up in Koino's apartment.

The beginning of a beautiful affair? Not quite. When Mon wakes up the next morning, he finds himself dressed in a superhero costume -- and still a virgin. Koino, as it turns out, is into kosupure ("costume play") -- that is, dressing up as her favorite female game character -- and finding a boyfriend who looks like the character's male counterpart. She is also, Mon learns to his distress, a successful creator and publisher of dojinshi (amateur comics), selling 10,000 copies per issue. Meanwhile, he has yet to sell "issue" one of his own stuff: Stones arranged in patterns in boxes with "captions" brushed on them.

When Koino visits his place -- a dark, dank room crowded with rocks, in a rooming house filled with colorful eccentrics, she does not do the sensible thing and run in the other direction. Instead, she invites him on a one-night tour for fans of a famous anime soundtrack singer. Dreaming of carnal delights, Mon agrees to go along. To raise the 28,000 yen for the ticket, he tries to get a job at a manga bar, and then has the brainstorm of asking the master (Matsuo) to sell his "manga." The master, once a popular mangaka himself, tells Mon to get a real job. Might he be right?

The stone-obsessed, stone-broke mangaka is reminiscent of Yoshiharu Tsuge's "Muno no Hito (Nowhere Man)," an iconic 1960s underground comic, though the film's ostensible source is a manga series by Jun Hanyunyuu that ran in Gekkan Comic Beam starting in 1998. I am not familiar with Hanyunyuu's work, but Tsuge's, however fantastic, is rooted in his own struggles and preoccupations. When "Muno no Hito" 's title character, a failed mangaka, becomes a seller of rocks by a riverbank (where he has found his merchandise), his choice of occupation verges on the twee, but his desperation is real.

By contrast, Mon's rocky "manga art" starts as a joke and stays one. Meanwhile, the film meanders through plot complication after plot complication, including an improbable love quadrangle driven by the master's lust for the busty Koino, and Mon's fatal attraction to a sultry bar patron, who turns out to be a madly relentless dominatrix. Nothing really builds, nothing is really at stake, save for Mon and Koino's on-again, off-again romance, the outcome of which is obvious from the first minute.

The actors all seem to be having a wonderful time, and I'm sure there was much hilarity on the set. Too bad Matsuo didn't end the film with an outtake reel; it would probably have been a knee-slapper. Maybe he's saving it for late-night TV.

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