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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Nice nerds just cannot fail

Koshonin Mashita Masayoshi

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director:Katsuyuki Motohiro
Running time: 127 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Spin-offs are an American TV institution. "Cheers" begat "Frasier," "The Tracey Ullman Show" begat "The Simpsons," "Friends" begat "Joey" and so on. The Japanese film industry, on the other hand, has long made series -- Yoji Yamada's Tora-san series ran for a world-record 48 installments -- but rarely a spin-off. The fishing-mad, work-shirking salaryman hero of the Yamada-scripted "Tsuri Baka Nisshi (Free and Easy)" series might be considered a spin-off of the equally feckless Tora-san -- or simply a segue.

News photo
Miki Mizuno and Yusuke Santa Maria in "Koshonin Mashita Masayoshi"

Then there is "Koshonin Mashita Masayoshi (Negotiator)," a film spun off from the two megahit "Odoru Daisosasen ( Bayside Shakedown)" movies. Why not simply make "OD3?"

"OD2" may have grossed 17 billion yen -- an all-time record for a Japanese live-action film -- but the story line -- a bumptious detective takes on a too-clever gang and the rigid Tokyo police bureaucracy -- was similar to that of "OD." Yet another one, producer Fuji TV perhaps feared, and audience ennui might set in.

Little chance of that with "Negotiator" 's title hero, Masayoshi Mashita. Played by comedian Yusuke Santa Maria, he is not the usual movie cop, but a criminal negotiator, an occupation about as common in Japan as a kosher butcher. Already at a distance from Japanese reality, he can more easily serve as the linchpin of a verging-on-fantasy action movie, without overly straining audience credibility. Think a Japanese version of Spider Man -- a nice-but-nerdy guy with special occupational skills.

Also, even though Mashita deals with a terrorist who threatens the entire Tokyo subway system, "Koshonin" produces little in the way of deadly catastrophe. Those looking for a high body count will be disappointed. One reason, Fuji TV producer Chihiro Kameyama told me, is the network has to be able to broadcast the film on primetime, where massive bloodshed is a no-no. Another reason, perhaps, is that the sight of rescue crews carting out bodies would evoke unpleasant memories of the real-life Tokyo subway sarin attack of a decade ago.

Director Katsuyuki Motohiro, who also helmed the "OD" films, has injected his story with an old-school Hollywood pace and tension, while fleshing out characters and relationships in typically Japanese ways. Mashita, we see, is less a Hollywood-like superhero, striding (or flying) off on his lonesome, but more a glorified salaryman, threading his way through an intricate web of human relationships in a large Japanese organization. The real drama lies in his building a productive wa (harmony) with his fellow workers (and in a way, with the terrorist).

The story begins Nov. 24, 2003, when Mashita is speaking to the media after winding up the case detailed in "OD2." Somehow, his comment that he is the Tokyo Metropolitan Police's first professional negotiator rubs a certain twisted someone the wrong way.

Exactly 13 months later, on Christmas Eve, an experimental subway train, called Kumo E4-600, starts barreling through tunnels and past platforms, as astonished commuters scramble out of the way. Though we see only the hands of its operator, we know that he is up to no good -- and has figured out how to make the subway system his playground. We do get a clear view of the Kumo E4-600 -- a sleek, glowing, futuristic machine that seems to have an evil mind of its own, like the truck in Steven Spielberg's "Duel." Then the terrorist in charge makes an unusual request -- he wishes to speak with Mashita -- and "ride together on the subway" with him.

Naturally, Mashita drops what he is doing -- getting ready for a heavy date with the woman he hopes to marry -- and hurries to establish contact with the terrorist. This requires a team of technicians (one of whom is played by Kotaro Koizumi, the son of the current prime minister) with gear that analyzes everything from voice patterns to phone locations.

They ensconce themselves in the cavernous control room of the Tokyo Transportation Railway (TTR), even though the testy supervisor, Kataoka (Jun Kunimura), says he has no need for Mashita's services. An eager-to-please TTR flack, Yano (Masanori Ishii), tries to smooth things over, but it is Mashita who must prove himself by probing the terrorist's motives, while coordinating with the subway people inside and the cops outside, including the quick-tempered, street-smart Kishima (Susumu Terajima). Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on not only the bombs the terrorist has set, but Mashita's big date.

As in the "OD" films, the basic story is simple, but crowded with characters and packed with various sorts of inside info. In its course, we learn much about both the operation of the Tokyo subway system and the Hollywood action movies the fanboy villain has used as the basis of his fiendishly ingenious scheme.

"Koshonin" itself is crammed with references to Hollywood films, from Clint Eastwood's "The Gauntlet" to Alfred Hitchcock's "The Man Who Knew Too Much" -- and all the terror-in-the-subway pics in between.

It is, you might say, Motohiro's answer to Quentin Tarantino's "Kill Bill," that geek homage to Asian trash cinema. "Koshonin" has more of a made-for-TV slickness, but also comes from a geeky love of an often-dismissed genre. Even so, I wanted the action to feel less like a role-playing game, more like the hell the subways here can become. Not necessarily bodies on the track -- but how about a real, live rush hour?

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