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Wednesday, April 27, 2005

You got the hair; you got everything



Hairstyle

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Yuki Iwata, Harold Matsumura, Masayuki Miyano
Running time: 82 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens April 30
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Omnibus films sometimes have clever gimmicks holding them together. The uniting thread of Yoshimitsu Morita's "Bakayaro" films was the title epithet, uttered (or shouted) at some point in the film by the fed-up hero. More often, however, the theme is fairly straightforward: "love" in the case of the Shinya Kawai-produced "Jam Films" (2003), and "a detective hero" in the case of the Makoto Shinozaki-produced "Deka Matsuri" series, though Shinozaki added a few rules to make things more interesting and gamelike (each segment could run only 10 minutes max., and had to contain five or more gags etc).

News photo
Reina Asami in "Hairstyle"

The organizing principle behind the three-part omnibus produced by Tetsuya Nakashima (Shimotsuma Monogatari) may sound gimmicky, but is more ambitious -- and stranger -- than most. Take three first-time directors, one talented actress (Reina Asami), and have her appear in all three segments in different roles and -- here is the key -- with different hairstyles.

The title of each segment, in fact, derives from the hairdo of the heroine: "Osage no Hondana (Pigtailed Bookshelf)," "Afro American" and "Mushroom."

Hair can not only reveal our sense of style (or lack thereof), but change our very identity. Thus the fugitive's resort to the wig or the scissors and dye bottle.

In Japan, more so than elsewhere, you are your hair. In Naoko Ogigami's "Barber Yoshino," the boys of a rural village were all given the same pudding-bowl haircut, ostensibly to propitiate a local god -- but actually to enforce a sense of community and tradition. The disturber of this century-old wa (harmony) is a city boy who refuses the customary trim -- and thus launches a revolution. Non-fictional examples abound in the worlds of sumo (the chonmage), high-school baseball (the buzzcut) and geisha-dom (the neck-revealing upswept look).

Hatoko (Asami), the heroine of Yuki Iwata's "Osage no Hondana" announces her innocence, purity and all-round niceness by wearing her hair in pigtails. She works in a failing used bookstore owned by her ailing, eccentric father, whose stock consists mainly of moldering Showa Era (1926-1989) erotica.

One day, a feeble-looking grad student, Shikao (Koji Yamamoto), wanders in and immediately falls head-over-heels with this vision of loveliness (who interrupts his reverie by chasing after a pudgy shoplifter). Dubbed Shika-chan by the amused Hatoko, he becomes a regular, a friend -- and something more, at least in his own fevered brain. The sweet, quirky, elusive Hatoko is slower to show her hand, assuming she is not just stringing poor Shika-chan along. Then one day he arrives to see her laughing and joking with a hunky Chinese student, Yang-kun (Yoshiyuki Korechika). An asthmatic, Shika-chan collapses in a fit of coughing, his dream of bliss in ruins.

A former student of Nakashima's and the winner of the Special Jury Prize at the 2004 Pia Film Festival, Iwata envelops this story in a warming haze of offbeat nostalgia, while expertly framing Hatoko as the spacey, lovable enigma she appears to her paramour's befuddled gaze. The pigtails may be integral to her identity, but also serve as a comic contrast to the smut around her. After we get the joke, they fade into the background.

Not so with the billowing title hairdo of the second segment, "Afro American." Its wearer, Barbara (Asami), looks, with her hot pants, tan and attitude, like a refugee from a '70s blaxploitation pic. Her problem: She has never learned to cook. Her defrosted meals, says her short-tempered, loud-mouthed boyfriend Ridley, are lacking in love. Storming out of their apartment, she runs into an Afro-American cook (Tetsuo Sato) at a Japanese restaurant. A helpful sort, he shows her how to make Japanese soul food, in Kansai dialect.

Directed by Harold Matsumura, a New York-born, 16-year-old Nakashima protege, and filmed in a frenetic music-video style, "Afro American" may tell a shallow story, but is nonetheless clever, energetic and almost slick enough for MTV. An Afro wig, it seems, can make an otherwise ordinary Japanese girl an instant hip-hop queen, strutting and styling as though she'd been born in the Bronx, not the suburbs of Tokyo.

In the third and final segment, "Mushroom," Asami plays Kazumi Ichikawa, an intense, geeky, loner girl, who in high school had a crush on Kenji (Masatoshi Matsuo), a smart, handsome, athletic boy who had it all. He was thus totally out of her reach, if not out of her heart. After graduation, unbeknownst to Kazumi, he lost his memory in a motorbike accident. One day he shows up at her door -- now a noodle-delivery guy -- but remembers nothing of their old acquaintance.

Seeing her chance, Kazumi tells him she was once his girlfriend and tried to commit suicide after he threw her over. Now she is living alone, a broken vessel. He believes her and tries to make amends by taking up where she says they left off. As directed by Masayuki Miyano, a veteran assistant director who has worked with Nakashima, "Mushroom" has a family resemblance to the Korean TV dramas now so popular in Japan, with their full-throated emotions and slightly fantastic, but easy-to-understand storylines.

But what, I began to wonder as Kazumi's dream of love descended into Sturm und Drang, do these three films have in common, besides a talented actress and her various wigs? Not much really. "Hair Style" is akin to a meal of down-home noodles, Kansai soul food and Made-in-Japan kimchi. Nice waitress -- but bring the stomach powders.



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