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Wednesday, March 9, 2005

Love and ghost stories reign eternal


Rating: * * (out of 5)
Director: Ryoichi Kimizuka
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Certain Japanese film formulas never die. Mutate, perhaps, but never die.

News photo
Noriyuki Higashiyama and Emi Wakui in "Makoto"

One is the romantic drama set between the world of the living and dead. The template for most made after 1990 is "Ghost," the Jerry Zucker hit starring Patrick Swayzee and Demi Moore, now primarily known as a sexy instructional film for beginning potters. In Japan, however, it has inspired countless variations on the theme of love across the Great Divide, culminating with "Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu (Be With You)," Nobuhiro Doi's drama about a woman, a year dead, who returns in the flesh to her husband and young son, but does not remember them. It grossed 4.8 billion yen ($46 million) in 2004, proving the viability of the formula, especially when combined with the hot junai ("pure love") genre.

Why are these films so enduringly popular, in a country where most people check the "no religion" box? Latent Buddhist beliefs in reincarnation? In any case, these movies' theology (or rather ghostology), which often takes strange twists and turns found in no known belief system, organized or otherwise, is designed to wring the tears of the audience.

The approach of "Makoto," is among the strangest. The film, the directorial debut of scriptwriter Ryoichi Kimizuka, combines two currently hot box-office genres, romance and horror, though the mix is heavier on the former than the latter. In other words, it's a film to make both the flesh creep and the tear ducts open. Bet that particular combination hadn't occurred to you -- it certainly hadn't to me. But Kimizuka, who scripted the megahit "Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)" films, as well as several TV drama series, is, if nothing else, a thinker outside formula boxes -- or rather a bold scrambler of them.

But the devices that worked so profitably in the "Odoru Daisosasen" films, including the team of colorful characters uniting to solve a series of puzzling cases, clash with "Makoto's" dominant tone of overripe agonizing. Also, where the "Odoru Daisosasen" films had a propulsive energy and pace that smoothed out the various narrative bumps, like a speed boat plowing through light chop, "Makoto" is like a canal boat drifting through a flat, misty, unchanging landscape, with raucous clowns occasionally shattering the silence.

The title character, Makoto Shirakawa (Noriyuki Higashiyama), is a doctor at a medical research center, who helps the police investigate mysterious deaths. His coworkers include his perky, motor-mouth assistant Kumi (Becky), a detective named Shijo (Sho Aikawa) with the '50s-style "Regent" hairdo, shades and mannerisms of a gangster (which is what Aikawa has mostly played in his nearly 200 screen appearances) and another detective named Momoko (Shigeru Muroi) who chain-smokes in front of the men, catnaps on the station couch and otherwise acts the part of the empowered, if deeply eccentric, woman. These folks, and others like them, are the comic relief, who caper and crack wise in the autopsy room or at the sites of grisly murders and suicides. They are supposed to be lovable, life-force types, but come off as stupendously insensitive, especially when weeping relatives are about, as they usually are.

Makoto is the exception -- a lugubriously sober, caring professional. He can also see ghosts, everywhere, including the spirits of the bodies he is dissecting. With solemn, CG-smudged faces, they wordlessly communicate not only their sadness and loneliness, but clues to cases the cops are working on. Makoto relays these messages to his colleagues, who do not share his gift and are constantly being creeped out by it.

There is, however, one ghost who will not reveal her secrets -- Makoto's artist wife, Eri (Emi Wakui), who was run over by a car six months before the story begins. This is torture to Makoto, who is forever flashing back to their life together and their arguments about his gift. She saw it as a wedge between them; he could not persuade her otherwise. But his love for her has never wavered -- and now he can find no closure.

Kimizuka, whose script is loosely based on a manga by Mamora Goda, tries to tug the same audience heartstrings as "Ai ni Yukimasu" and other megahit weepers. His decision, however, to make his spirits silent (save for one, in the last reel) casts a pall that becomes unbearable when they return to living form for a last farewell, but can give no consoling words to their heart-sick loved ones.

Also, Makoto's spirit communing is always at the same doleful, monotonous pitch. As played by former boy-band heartthrob Higashiyama, making his first screen appearance in 14 years, Makoto has an emotional palette ranging from gray to blue. One longs to slip some Tabasco into his tea, if only to color his world.

But then I am not in the target audience for this film's turgid theatrics; the film is for women who were fans of Higashiyama and his band, Shonentai, back in the '80s, and are now presumably middle-aged enough to be gripped by its drama of mature longing and loss. Me, I'd rather pop a tape of "Ghost" into the machine and marvel again at the things Demi Moore's fingers can do with clay.

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