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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

A trip through cloud-Kudo-land

Mayonaka no Yajisan Kitasan

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Kankuro Kudo
Running time: 116 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Quentin Tarantino could have made this if he were Japanese," I thought, stumbling out of "Mayonaka no Yajisan Kitasan." That brain bubble, however, soon popped as I realized that no one, even the genre-scrambling Tarantino, could have come up with the film's particular blend of samurai and pop surrealism.

News photo

Kankuro Kudo, the film's writer and a first-time director, is a wunderkind who got his start as a comic actor (and still takes the occasional role), but began writing scripts, scoring a hit in 2000 with the TBS series "Ikebukuro Westgate Park." Since then nearly everything he has touched has turned to ratings or box-office gold, including the films "Go" (2001), "Ping Pong" (2002) and "Kisarazu Cats Eye" (2004).

Unlike most Japanese scriptwriters, who even when successful have the public profile of a lobster, Kudo has become a celebrity -- his lanky frame, long face and trademark floppy hats are visible all over the media. For his first film, "Yajisan Kitasan," he had the sort of carte blanche rarely extended to tyro directors since Orson Welles was given the run of the RKO lot for "Citizen Kane."

Welles-like, he promised a film utterly unlike any seen before. What he has delivered is . . . another Kankuro Kudo movie, albeit one with narrative and visual fireworks that make his other films look, if not sedate, almost normal.

But then, Kudo has defined the new normal for the mass of under-25s who rarely go to a movie, but are connected to a media source nearly every waking minute. Who get their laughs from the TV manzai routines that range from crude slapstick to cutting satire, but seldom draw a quiet breath. Who get their traditional culture -- the guys with the topknots and all the rest -- more from manga and anime than the films of Kenji Mizoguchi.

Where Takeshi Kitano has drawn a clear, bright line between his TV clowning and his arty film work, Kudo makes no major distinction. His films may be more tightly structured than his TV shows, but both assume the same over-stimulated, easily distracted audience.

"Yajisan Kitasan" is a period drama set in no known universe, save Kudo's fertile brain. Yajirobe (Tomoya Nagase, frontman of pop group Tokio) and Kitahachi (kabuki actor Shichinosuke Nakamura) are a happy gay couple in old Edo (today's Tokyo), but Kita, an out-of-work actor, has a drug problem and Yaji, of no obvious occupation, is suffering from bizarre dreams and fears that he is losing his sanity. Then, inspired by a flier saying, "The real is here" at Ise Shrine, they set off for that venerable landmark -- Kita to shake his addiction, Yaji to regain touch with reality.

They follow the Tokkaido, that storied road from Edo to Ise, and since they are in a hurry, they blast off down a modern highway on a motorcycle, but a cop in a helmet and kimono (Susumu Terajima) pulls them over and tells them they have to walk (as a punishment for violation of the space-time continuum?).

They comply and forge on until they reach Hakone and the first barrier, called Warai no Yado (The Inn of Laughs). The scowling barrier keeper (Riki Takeuchi) will only let travelers pass if they can make him laugh, which is not an easy task. The unfunny are tortured and, in extreme cases of humor impairment, put to death. Yaji and Kita stumble their way into a skin-saving gag, but Kita, unable to control his cravings, gets busted by the guards and a weeping Yaji is forced to traipse on alone.

They manage to reunite -- no need to say how, but this is hardly the end of their troubles. Back in Edo, the body of Yaji's wife turns up in the river and the cops suspect foul play, with Yaji and Kita as the prime suspects. Dubious allies appear along the way, including a druggie manzai comic and his boy partner, as do various odd characters, including a group of singing high-school girls and a cute-but-tone-deaf girl whose music-loving father is the keeper of a second barrier, Uta no Yado (The Inn of Songs).

After various adventures, Yaji and Kita reach the third and last barrier, O no Yado (The Inn of the King), whose keeper is none other than King Arthur of the Round Table. Here the boys meet their final test -- and temptation.

Based on a manga by Kotobuki Shiriagai that is in turn based on Ikku Jippensha's classic picaresque novel "Tokkaidochu Hizakurige," "Mayonaka no Yajisan Kitasan" is less Kudo riffing on his source material, than a complete departure from it, into a cloud-Kudo-land where eras and cultures collide and logic takes a holiday.

Unlike Kitano, who has taken the ijime (bullying) endemic in Japanese show business to new sadistic heights, Kudo is a gentle-spirited sort, who may put his heroes though hell, but is always on their side. Also, where Kitano's film comedy is often pawky, deadpan, chilled-out and borderless -- Laurel and Hardy meet Jim Jarmusch -- Kudo's comic style is knock-about, rapid-fire and culturally in-groupy -- the Keystone Cops cops meet comedy duo Downtown. At the same time, "Yajisan Kitasan" is, not just a series of slapsticky manzai routines, but Kudo's unbuttoned essay on the nature of friendship, love and the whole meggilah of this journey called life.

There is much brilliance in it, to be sure, but, like the nonstop, high-volume pop culture it draws on, much static as well. About halfway through I was longing for a sound and speed control -- and dreading the headache to come. A problem I never had with "Citizen Kane."

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