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Wednesday, Feb. 9, 2005
Baby boomers on separate paths to the past
Generalizations about Japanese films have become dangerous, if not absurd. Whatever unity of studio product that once existed, such as Shochiku's prewar "Kamata style," has long since vanished. Today's Japanese filmmakers go their own, often radically different ways.
Two of the most dissimilar -- and talented -- directors now working are Jun Ichikawa and Kazuyuki Izutsu. Both are baby boomers with a fondness for the Japan of their youth -- and have found very different ways of expressing it.
Ichikawa is an admirer of Yasujiro Ozu's highly ordered, less-is-more aesthetic. In his recent films, he has tried to shake his "Ozu disciple" image, but in his latest, "Tony Takitani," he returns to a key Ozu-esque theme: The drama inherent in quiet, unexceptional lives. His source, though, is a short story by Haruki Murakami about a shy technical illustrator (Issey Ogata) stuck with an unusual name by his jazzman father -- and about his trying to escape the isolation it (as well as his own nature) imposes on him.
Famously reluctant to permit film treatments of his work, Murakami is reportedly delighted with "Tony Takitani" -- as well as he should be. Instead of the usual revisions (or butcheries) to make the story more cinematic, Ichikawa has opted to make his film more literary. As the camera moves laterally from scene to scene, somewhat like the cards in a kamishibai (picture play), a narrator tells the story, from beginning to end, less like a raspy kamishibai man trying to entertain antsy kids, more like a dulcet-voiced radio storyteller trying to soothe drive-time adults.
The story relates Tony's life, starting with the decision of his father (also played by Ogata) to give him that fatal name, but centering on his relationship with Eiko (Rie Miyazawa), an elusive beauty mad about designer clothes. He falls for her, marries her -- and feels alive in a way he never imagined possible. Then, as she maxes out her plastic to feed her obsession, he realizes that with human connection comes human pain. When he tries to change Eiko, he discovers another emotion: loss.
Ichikawa's distancing strategies, including tamped-down, hollowed-out performances by Ogata and Miyazawa, may evoke Murakami's prose with pitch-perfect fidelity -- but when I realized the narration was never going to stop, I felt a vague panic, as though I were being absorbed, word by velvety word, into Tony's lonely world. Or rather, locked into Eiko's airless closet, without hope of rescue until the closing credits.
By comparison, Izutsu's film, "Pacchigi! (We Shall Overcome Someday)" is a big, raw, revitalizing jolt, like walking from a present-day Tokyo street, with its dull, closed-off faces, into a wild student party-cum-riot, circa 1968. The film is partly Izutsu's look back at his own '60s youth. Mostly, though, it is "Romeo and Juliet" redux, with Kyoto standing in for Verona and the Japanese and Korean communities substituting, respectively, for the Montagues and Capulets.
Romeo, a k a Kosuke Matsuyama (Shun Shioya), is a second-year high school student. A nice, normal, nonviolent type, he suddenly finds himself in the middle of a rampaging crowd of ethnic Korean boys, outraged by insults perpetrated by several of his idiot classmates on two Korean girls. He makes a narrow escape, but soon after, he and his best bud Yoshio (Keisuke Koide) are sent by their homeroom teacher to invite the Korean students to a friendly soccer game as a way of restoring the peace.
Trembling like black-uniformed leaves, they enter enemy territory, where Kosuke encounters a doll-faced, but serious-looking girl (Erika Sawajiri) playing a Korean folk song, "Imjin River," on a flute. He and Yoshio are also nearly lynched by her older brother Lee Ang Son (Sosuke Takaoka) and his gang, but he is already smitten -- and eager to learn that haunting tune.
The story centers on Kosuke's struggle to not only master a song, but win the love of a girl who seems to live in an alien, hostile world. Meanwhile, Ang Son and his crew are street fighting with Japanese toughs as if playing a contact sport, with one side scoring hits, then the other. He is macho to a fault, but when he learns that his girlfriend (Kyoko Yanagihara) is pregnant and determined to keep the baby, he faces a choice that makes him quail: grow up or cop out.
"Pacchigi!" (literally, "break through," or more colloquially, "bust heads," in Korean) may be based on the Takeshi Matsuyama novel "Boy M's Imjin River," but it is Izutsu's in every frame. A native of Nara, Izutsu debuted in 1975 with an independently produced porno film, but became best known for films like "Gaki Teikoku" (1981) and "Kishiwada Shone Gurentai" (1996) that depicted, with gritty realism and rough affection, the lives and brawls of Kansai bad boys.
In recent years, Izutsu has become popular as a tart-tongued TV film critic, but as "Pacchigi!" proves, his celebrity has not softened his style or concerns. If anything, he has upped his already high violence ante. His young toughs fight knock-down, drag-out battles at every opportunity, made or found. It's their release, their raison d'e^tre and, finally, their path to mutual understanding. As I beat you, I know you.
This insight may not occur to the middle-class, college-educated, movie otaku types who now make most of the films about Japan's marginals and minorities, but it comes naturally enough to Izutsu. He knows his people and their world inside out. He doesn't interpret them so much as give them a voice (while inserting his own wry asides).
How, I wonder, would Ichikawa and Izutsu get along in person? Like introvert oil and extrovert water? They could discuss that eternal topic of Japanese directors: Money for the next film. Or they could beat the tar out each other in the parking lot, repair to a karaoke bar to sing "Imjin River" and drunkenly declare eternal friendship. I can think of worse ways to spend an evening.