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Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2005

The school of hard knocks

Lakeside Murder Case

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Shinji Aoyama
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Jan. 22
[See Japan Times movie listings]

More Japanese directors, young and not so young, are following American-style career paths: After an indie success or two, they move on to bigger and better things, with various media giants putting up the cash. Is no one, including the auteurs of the '90s New Wave, immune to the lure of the box office?

News photo
The cast of Shinji Aoyama's "Lakeside Murder Case"

This dire thought was prompted by the news that Shinji Aoyama -- among the brightest of the New Wave stars for such films as "Helpless" (1995), "Wild Life" (1997) and the Cannes-prize-winning "Eureka" (2000) -- was making "Lakeside Murder Case," which is pretty much what it sounds like: a film based on a best seller by Keigo Higashino about a murder at a lakeside resort.

Aoyama is in excellent company, starting with Alfred Hitchcock, David Lynch and Kon Ichikawa, that devoted fan of Agatha Christie -- but this maker of meditations on the soul of post-bubble Japan, known for his one-scene-one-cut style, did not seem the most obvious choice to helm what looked to be multiplex fare for Toho.

"Lakeside Murder Case," however, is less a commercial whodunit with a gorgeous corpse than a dark, multilayered psycho-drama, whose subjects include the ills of the Japanese educational system and the moral limits of parental love. In other words, right down Aoyama's alley after all.

At the same time, it is more mainstream than the Aoyama norm. Fans of Mystery Theater puzzlers can enjoy the plot twists, as well as the dark undercurrents of illicit passion and murderous rage, presented in a chilly, mannered style reminiscent of late period Hitchcock.

Does Aoyama also deliver Hitchcockian shocks? No, but he is more interested in lifting social masks to reveal the creepy-crawlies underneath -- and that he does with a cool efficiency. I didn't buy his ending, but given what came before, it has a certain inevitability, like the juku (cram school) fliers that drop through my mail slot.

The hero is Shunsuke Namiki (Koji Yakusho), an ad agency art director who gets involved in a mid-life-crisis affair with a scrumptious photographer, Eisako (Yuko Mano), and separates from his wife, the much-put-upon Misako (Hiroko Yakushimaru). As the film begins, he is rushing off to meet Misako and her daughter from a previous marriage, who are attending an intensive study session sponsored by the daughter's juku.

The setting is not the usual faceless office building, but an elegantly rustic villa by a quiet lake. Also, instead of the usual uniformed masses, the class consists of two boys and a girl, all cramming for admission to the same elite junior high school. The head of this establishment, Tsukumi Sensei (Etsushi Toyokawa), has the excruciatingly proper bearing of a manager at an exclusive club -- which, in a way, he is.

Most of the parents are dressed as for a funeral. They answer Tsumiki's mock interview questions about their parenting practices and goals with the expected high-minded answers, as though reciting from a manual. Shunsuke, by contrast, is casual in both his choice of clothes and answers, as though he could hardly be bothered.

This bad attitude sends Misako into a rage. Her mood is not improved when Eisako arrives, ostensibly on business, and slinks about with a naughty grin. She might as well be wearing a big, bright "A" on her forehead.

That night, to be brief, someone is murdered, and, shortly after, one of the parents confesses. But if they go to the police, they will put their kids' studies -- and thus their futures -- in jeopardy. Instead, they decide to hide the corpse. It so happens that one parent, a dour-looking doctor (Akira Emoto), is something of a body disposal expert, but he needs help -- and soon everyone is implicated save Sensei and the kids, cramming away in another cabin.

Shift the story a few degrees, and "Lakeside Murder Case" could be a black comedy of the "Shallow Grave" variety. A few degrees in the opposite direction, and it could fit into the horror bin, next to "Village of the Damned." Aoyama's aim, however, is neither laughs nor shocks -- though he does raise goose bumps as he shows us exactly how much work a perfect crime can entail, and how easy it is to make one fatal mistake.

Koji Yakusho, as Shunsuke, is our link to ordinary humanity, but his performance, though winningly rumpled (Mr. Yakusho, meet Mr. Hanks), is not enough to warm the film's frigid emotional air. To scale this country's educational heights, Aoyama and co-scriptwriter Masaki Fukasawa seem to say, one must be as ruthless as the feudal lords in the Warring States days, who would commit any outrage to advance their interests or extend their domains.

This nihilism may be overdone -- most parents don't have to bury bodies to get little Taro into Todai, not yet anyway -- but the film does pose a timely question. In a winner-take-all society, how can one compete successfully and stay human? The answer may be staring us in the face, albeit from the bottom of a lake.

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