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Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Get back to where you once belonged


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Koji Hagiuda
Running time: 82 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Writers who quote Thomas Wolfe's most famous dictum -- "You can't go home again" -- nearly always contradict him. They point out the U-turn success stories: The hard-charging businessman who left the big-city rat race for contentment, fulfillment and a decent-enough living in Smalltown, USA.

News photo
Hidetoshi Nishijima and Reiai Moriyama in "Kikyo"

Wolfe, however, was writing about leaving home emotionally, as well as physically and professionally. You no longer want to be the hometown loser or known quantity and so you say goodbye. Then you come back, months or years later, to find the psychic space you once filled with such solidity (and agony) no longer exists. You're a visitor, a fading memory.

Such is the dilemma of Haruo (Hidetoshi Nishijima), the salaryman hero of Koji Hagiuda's "Kikyo (Going Home)." Living alone in Tokyo, grinding away at work, he is living a classic life of quiet desperation when his flighty, chirpy mom (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) in the countryside suddenly calls him home. She is about to marry, for the second time, and wants her son to witness the happy occasion. Which he dutifully, if reluctantly, does.

Now what? He no longer belongs, has little desire to stay. On the night of the wedding, he goes to bar run by a high-school senpai (Ken Mitsuishi) and finds Miyuki (Reiko Kataoka), a former lover, behind the counter. She had also left town, in circumstances Haruo finds painful to recall, but is now back, a single mom, raising a 7-year-old daughter and holding down two jobs.

For Haruo, however, she is still the flame that never went out. Another lost, lonely soul, she feels the same heat -- and a random encounter turns into a passionate after-hours reunion. Miyuki invites Haruo to visit her apartment at noon the next day and meet her daughter, Chiharu (Reiai Moriyama). He shows up on time, but only Chiharu is there. A cute, sullen kid, she tells him gruffly that the mom is working at the supermarket. Together they set off to find her -- but no one at the supermarket has seen her.

If "Kikyo" were the usual jun ai ("pure love") drama, this search would end with Haruo learning What Really Matters and changing his life accordingly. The search does end and Haruo does learn something -- but not in an obvious, tugging-at-the-heart-strings way.

Working from a script by the film's producer, Go Riju, Hagiuda instead tells a story that rings truer to the complexities of life, especially when a seven-year blank -- and a 7-year-old girl -- are involved. He does not avoid the big moments -- including the upwellings of lust, anxiety and love -- that are the common stuff of melodrama, but stages them without melodramatic manipulation.

He even refuses to jerk tears from sweet-faced Chiharu -- instead presenting her in all her scowling wariness. He also rejects the usual Hollywood temptation of turning her into a little wisecracker just this side of insufferable. Admirable, that.

In its absent-mother theme, as well its insistence on naturalism, "Kikyo" is similar to Hirokazu Kore-eda's much acclaimed "Dare mo Shiranai (Nobody Knows)," but its story is really closer to that of "Leon," the hard-edged, if soft-centered, Luc Besson film about the friendship and love that grow between a French hit man and his unlikely girl apprentice. Wounded Haruo and wary Chiharu venture out of their shells and bond while traipsing about the countryside and sleeping rough in a rural train station -- an ice-breaker if there ever was one.

Formulaic? Perhaps, but Hagiuda, who works mainly in TV as a director and scriptwriter, avoids formula payoffs. When Chiharu comes down with a fever one night, a frantic Haruo bangs on the locked door of a clinic. What transpires next, however, is not a life-or-death medical drama, but a deflating lesson in parenthood, surrogate or otherwise: i.e., little kids need their rest. Jean Reno never had to give Natalie Portman a nap, did he?

A much-in-demand actor, whose long list of credits include Takeshi Kitano's "Dolls" and Akihito Shiota's "Canaria," Nishijima makes Haruo look convincingly dull-normal -- glancing at him in the train, you'd think him an utter blank -- but with clear signs of loneliness, regret and desire for those with eyes to see. When Haruo's passion for Miyuki re-ignites there is no strangeness or disjuncture -- the feeling was always there.

In her first film since a cerebral hemorrhage nearly killed her in January 2002, Reiko Kataoka gives a performance that, with its air of vulnerability, fragility and unreliability, seems to spring from her core. She is not, however, another neurotic with a knack for exhibitionism, but a turbulently gifted actress who can evoke Miyuki's guilt at her treatment of Haruo -- and her unresolved feelings for him -- with little more than an uncertain smile and a half-doubting, half-inviting glance.

She is the best thing in the film -- and needs only a few minutes of screen time to prove it. "Kikyo" is not just her comeback, but a reminder, in the midst of all those TV-trained muggers out there, of how good screen acting in this country can be. Going home? More like welcome back, Kataoka-san. This time, stay around for a while.

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