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Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2005
Three that almost got away
Every year it's getting tougher to keep up with new Japanese films on release. Young directors who once might have scuffled for years to make their first feature are now churning out films with DV cameras, while at the top end TV networks are beefing up their slates, with dreams of another hit like "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu" dancing in their heads. At this year's Tokyo International Film Festival I tried to stay a step ahead of the influx, seeing all eight films in the Japanese Eyes section (I had to -- I was a judge), as well as several in other sections. Wouldn't you know it, a clump of these films has arrived in theaters for the New Year and now I have to scramble to review them before they disappear. Unfortunately, their distributors didn't always save the best for the last of 2004.
First and foremost is "Riyu (The Motive/RIYUU)," Nobuhiko Obayashi's adaptation of the eponymous award-winning novel by Miyuki Miyabe. Most of the action revolves around a high-rise apartment building in Arakawa Ward, where four men and women are murdered in one condo on a dark and stormy night in 1996. When the bodies are discovered -- after one of the men is spotted plunging into the bushes at the foot of the building -- the police learn that the victims are not a family as they first thought, but unrelated strangers. How did they all come to be in the wrong place at the wrong time?
In puzzling out the answer Obayashi, who also wrote the script, forgoes the usual mystery story plotting and scene setting, opting instead for a faux documentary style. The characters, including the building's eerily detached super (Ittoku Kishibe) and the flustered woman (Masami Hisamoto) who lives next door to the apartment where the murders occurred (and got a glimpse of a ghostly intruder), often speak directly into the camera. Also, instead of the usual small cast of cops, witnesses and suspects, Obayashi crams in 107 (count 'em!) characters, with most getting a moment or more to shine. In listening to their stories we begin to understand not only whodunit, but their post-bubble lives, while keeping a certain ironic distance.
This Pointillist approach resembles that of "Nashville" -- Robert Altman's 1975 portrait of Ford-era America, but Obayashi is working with a smaller thematic canvas -- and is more willing than Altman to splash on the pathos. Also, though long known for his high head counts, Altman used only 24 characters in his masterpiece. In parading more than four times as many across the screen, Obayashi begins to test audience patience and recall. Even so, "Riyu" is his strongest effort in years -- a cross-section of Japanese society that exposes not only its malignancies, but its heart.
Another social microcosm is found in Takayuki Suzui's "Gin no Angel (Angel in the Box)," a comedy set in and around a convenience store in the frigid depths of Hokkaido.
Most Japanese movie konbini are populated by eccentrics and loners -- save for the clerks, who are usually stoic beacons of sanity. The Lawson's managed by Shoichi Kitajima (Fumiyo Kohinata) and his wife Sawako (Miyoko Asada) is no exception -- though these two also have their quirks: Shoichi is a milquetoasty loafer, while Sawako, though a hard worker, is not the most nurturing type. Sent to the hospital after a traffic accident, she leaves poor Shoichi and rebellious teenage daughter Yuki (Megumi Sato) to their own devices, while thoroughly enjoying the enforced leisure of convalescence.
Shoichi, with the aid of a phlegmatic clerk (Hidetoshi Nishijima) and a buff, big-hearted delivery boy (Yo Oizumi), survives a shaky start as night manager, while becoming acquainted with the various characters who hang out at the store, including a vampy divorced woman with a thing for chocolate balls, and a group of teenage boys who dance to rap tunes in the parking lot. Shoichi learns that the latter are decent types, while the former lights fires he long thought beyond rekindling. Meanwhile, Yuki is plotting an escape from Shoichi, the store and Hokkaido.
A Hokkaido native, Suzui gets the atmospherics right, down to the midnight loneliness of the great frozen north. Also, while running mildly funny riffs on konbini culture, he keeps the focus gently but squarely on the core relationships, particularly the troubled one between Shoichi and Yuki. But as good as several of the performances are, led by Fumiyo Kohinata's turn as the nebbishy Shoichi, the film is finally too slight and sitcom-y for the dramatic weight Suzui lays on it. But a television audience might find it just right.
Even slighter is Kentaro Otani's "Yaku Sanju no Uso (30 Lies or So)" -- a comedy about a gang of swindlers, led by the languid, but razor-tongued Daisuke (Kippei Shiina), who pull off a successful job, but misplace the loot while riding together on their getaway train.
Based on a play by Hideo Tsuchiya, "Yaku Sanju no Uso" has the same sophisticated, witty angle of attack as Otani's "Avec Mon Mari" (1999) and "Travail" (2002), films in which intimate enemies stripped away each other's masks to amusing and revealing effect. But the jokes in "Yaku," which may have tickled ribs when delivered from the stage, fall dead on the screen. The audience I saw the film with at the TIFF screening was, in the immortal words of Lenny Bruce, like an oil painting. The silence was so deafening I began to listen for anything resembling a snicker or chuckle (it certainly wasn't coming from me). After an hour or so I finally heard a laugh that sounded oddly angry -- a why-have-you- waited-so-damned-long-to-be-funny laugh.
One problem is that Otani makes little effort to widen the action beyond the gang's compartment or otherwise break the trance of the constant talk-talk. Another is the lack of tension or stakes -- no one is threatened with anything more than a put-down. By the end of the gang's interminable trip I was hoping for anything -- a card trick -- to break the tedium. Next time, I'll book the sleeper.