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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

A dog-day afternoon awaits at the theater

Operetta Tanuki Goten

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Seijun Suzuki
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 28
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Seijun Suzuki was, like Orson Welles, a wayward genius who simultaneously used and defied the studio system, but was finally crushed by it. Suzuki's arc of rise and fall was longer than Welles', however: He directed 39 films at Nikkatsu before his most outrageous act of defiance -- "Koroshiya no Rakuin (Branded to Kill)" -- got him fired from the studio in 1967. His fatal error was baffling his audience and, more importantly, his studio boss, with a story of a hit-man on the run that had all the logic of a Kafkaesque dream.

News photo
Joe Odagiri and Zhang Ziyi in "Operetta Tanuki Goten" (c)2005 "PRINCESS RACCOON" PRODUCTION COMMITTEE

As his latest film, "Operetta Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon)" shows, the 82-year-old Suzuki is still dreaming private dreams, but they have taken an older, more domestic form. Instead of "Koroshiya's" go-go era anarchy and eroticism (Mariko Ogawa scampering half naked around the hitman hero's ultra-modern flat), Suzuki has taken his cues from native folklore, with its stories of trickster tanuki (raccoon dogs), who, legend says, assume human form to bewitch and bedevil. His sensibility, though, derives more from his beloved Taisho Era (1912-1926), when the Japanese traditional and the Western new were blending with more freedom -- and license -- than possible in the straitlaced days of Emperor Meiji.

He is not the first to film the legend of Princess Raccoon (Tanuki Hime), a beautiful tanuki-turned-human: Keigo Kimura, and other directors, made several versions of her story, beginning with Kimura's "Tanuki Goten (Princess Raccoon)" in 1939 and continuing into the late 1950s. What is the extent of their influence on Suzuki's film I cannot say, though "Operetta Tanuki Goten" has a shot-on-the-set look and leisurely pace look that is more 1955 than 2005.

It is, however, thoroughly in the Suzuki style, which is to say, visually brilliant, but blithely contemptuous of conventions, including the quasi-realistic integration of story, dance and song that defined the classic Broadway and Hollywood musical from "Showboat" on. This is squarely in the Japanese theatrical tradition, which celebrates, rather than conceals, its own artificiality. Suzuki's characters don't strike kabuki-like poses, but they are, obviously and deliberately, fantasy creatures of the stage (or rather studio set), with no imaginable existence beyond it.

Their world is a blend of Western and Japanese, with foreigners in Elizabethan era garb gabbling in the castle of one Azuchi Momoyama (Mikijiro Hira) as the action begins (or rather, the curtains part). This lord is, like the Queen in "Snow White," a self-infatuated sort. When he asks his seer-in-residence, the white-haired Biruzen Baba (Saori Yuki) -- who is the most beautiful of all -- she peers into a bubbling bowl of soup and delivers the expected answer: Azuchi Momoyama.

But then, to her distress, the lord's visage disappears, to be replaced by that of his son, Amechiyo (Joe Odagiri). Upset at the thought that his handsome offspring will supersede him, Azuchi Momoyama banishes Amechiyo to a distant mountain, with a ninja (Taro Yamamoto) serving as escort/assassin.

Enough to say that Amechiyo frees himself and encounters the lovely Tanuki Hime (Princess Raccoon), who has come from China to the Tanuki Goten (Raccoon Palace). Despite the language barrier -- Tanuki Hime speaks and sings mostly in Mandarin, Amechiyo in jidai-geki (period drama) Japanese -- they promptly fall in love. (The heart, we are given to understand, can interpret what the rational mind cannot.)

Among the barriers to their bliss, however, is not only Biruzen Baba, determined to uphold the supremacy of her lord and master, but Ohagi no Tsubone (Hiroko Yakushimaru), Tanuki Hime's nurse, who is opposed to this unnatural union. Will true love prevail?

If this were kabuki, the answer would be a simple "no." But since it is an "operetta," tragedy is not required -- or even hinted at. Instead, we get elaborately, if statically, staged musical numbers in various styles, from prewar pop to -- believe it or not -- rap. The digital ghost of enka diva Hibari Misora even makes an appearance.

Chinese star Zhang Ziyi may have displayed her dancerly athleticism in the martial arts epics of Zhang Yimou ("Hero," "House of Flying Daggers") and Ang Lee ("Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon") and her smoky eroticism in Wong Kar-wai's "2046," but in "Tanuki Goten" she shows a softer, if still elusive, side more in keeping with Suzuki's vision. Both she and co-star Joe Odagiri (Akarui Mirai) seem to be enjoying themselves, in roles that require them to do little more than embody archetypes.

By comparison with Suzuki's 2001 "Pistol Opera," a flat, mannered exercise in style, "Operetta Tanuki Goten" is lighter in spirit and touch. Expecting to be embarrassed by this former cinematic anarchist's trip down a dusty musical memory lane, I was charmed by his affection for his material and his unabashed showmanship in presenting it. His puckish sense of humor is still alive and well, but he is making a popular entertainment, not a private joke.

Of course, the definition of "popular" has changed radically since the Taisho or Suzuki's 1960s heyday. Modern audiences -- even the oldsters who are film's main target -- have come to demand a quicker pace and greater sophistication than the old operettas, Western or Eastern, provided. Halfway though "Tanuki Goten," I was longing for the snap and sass of the Hollywood musicals that succeeded them. Zhang Ziyi may be sweet, but give me Fred and Ginger.

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