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Wednesday, Jan. 12, 2005
Getting into the spirit of things
Girls have been going wild in Japanese films for decades now -- see Meiko Kaji making like a panther in Nikkatsu's early 1970s "Nora Neko Rock (Stray Cat Rock)" series -- but today's in-charge, kick-butt heroines do things a bit differently.
Some, like Eriko Sato's saucer-eyed, super-powered Cutie Honey, are cartoony fantasy figures for pubescent boys (or their fathers, nostalgic for the original 1973 Go Nagai anime). Others, however, are based on real-life models, such as Anna Tsuchiya's biker and Kyoko Fukada's frilly fashionista in "Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)." Though extreme, these characters represent actual trends and tribes. They are not trying to please or ape men, but rather act out female dreams, however absurd they may seem to their more conventionally-minded peers or elders.
Saori Takizawa's "ghost negotiator" character in the horror comedy "Ghost Shout" has no real-life counterpart whatsoever. But Takizawa herself, a former Miss Universe Japan runner-up who has gone on to a career in modeling and acting, represents the growing cohort of "deka onna" (literally, "big women") who have become so fascinating to the Japanese media. She not only towers over nearly all the men in the film, but effortlessly dominates them. When she tries to play the fluttery, flutey o-josama ("proper young lady") for her tanned, handsome and impeccably groomed boyfriend (Masaru Nakai), she is a transparent fake. Femininity, as traditionally defined, comes to her about as naturally as it does to Clint Eastwood.
This is a joke, but one, the film implies, representing a reality its male characters not only have to live with, but a few kind of like. Instead of a freak of nature who is eventually put in her place, Takizawa gets her guy as well as her way. That's progress, I suppose.
The film, as written by Mitsuhiro Sasaki and directed by TV veteran Renpei Tsukamoto, is a champon stew of genres and influences. Think the South Korean hit "My Sassy Girl" and the Howard Raimis classic, "Ghostbusters," together with gags recycled from dota-bata (slapstick) variety show skits and old Hollywood screwball comedies.
Takizawa plays Yoko, a medium who works for an agency that specializes in exorcism. As the "bad" side of a good-cop-bad-cop negotiating routine, she berates trouble-making spooks, while her sweet-tempered male partner tries to beguile them away from their earthly haunt and into the Great Beyond. It's tough work (one ghostly granny dumps a pot of miso on her head), and Yoko is ready to ditch it for married bliss with Toshio, the above-mentioned Mr. Right, if she can first get him to propose by posing as a traveled, cultured, ever-so-ladylike flight attendant.
Then, in the middle of her big date with Toshio, a new agency hire named Yanagida (Ken Izawa) drags her off to a new job. A white-gowned, musically challenged ghost (Yoko Minamida) is mangling The Peanuts' classic "Koi no Vacance (Love Vacation)" at a university chapel and ruining the 35th wedding anniversary of the silver-haired university dean and his wife.
The ghost proves to be a formidable foe, who can turn bothersome humans to stone with her high notes. Even Yoko's fearsome tantrums and Yanagida's gentle suasions can't shut her up or make her go away in time for the ceremony. Meanwhile, Toshio and his exquisitely kimonoed mother (Naomi Kawashima) are smelling a rat in the flight galley.
The jokes come thick, fast and broad, while the scares come hardly at all -- unless you are spooked by the sight of a King Kong-size Yoko Minamida, crooning away in a white dress. The romance between Yoko and Toshio holds few surprises, as does Yoko's journey to self-realization -- both are less written than remixed.
Tsukamoto, however, rarely lets the action drag, packing both background and foreground with gags, as when Yoko and Yanagida, driving together in the rain, reminisce about a bonfire party they both attended in their school days and scenes from the party appear on the car's side-window. Also, though everyone is playing a cartoon of some sort, members of the talented supporting cast -- particularly Kenji Annan and Ichiro Ogura as befuddled college officials -- deliver small comic gems.
As Yoko, Saori Takizawa takes too many hints from Jeon Ji Hyun's high-octane performance in "My Sassy Girl," and too few, if any, from Bill Murray's laid-back, pitch-perfect turn in "Ghostbusters." Watching her browbeat a ghost is funny enough, until you realize she has no weapons but her size and mouth, neither of which are effective against protoplasm. The film tries to distract from this absurdity by raising the volume, but the white-gowned ghost sings on serenely, if not on key.
Murray, I think, would have had the answer: a big hose and huge sucking sound. Takizawa, unfortunately, doesn't have a clue -- but she could eat Bill's lunch in a game of beach volleyball.