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Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Oguri's magical dreamscape worth the wait


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Kohei Oguri
Running time: 93 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Kohei Oguri is a study in integrity -- and cussedness. Ever since he debuted in 1981 with "Doro no Kawa (Muddy River)," a lyrical black-and-white film about childhood that inspired comparisons to Ozu and swept domestic film awards, Oguri has been a solitary figure in the Japanese film world -- a perfectionist, individualist and purist whose rejection of today's materialistic, media-saturated Japan is all but total.

News photo
Tadanobu Asano and Taka Okubo in "Umoregi"

Treading his own path, and at his own pace, he has released five feature films that have received prestigious festival invitations, nominations and awards, including a Foreign Film Academy Award nod for "Doro no Kawa" and a Cannes Grand Prix for "Shi no Toge (The Sting of Death)" (1990), a stark, highly stylized examination of a marriage in dissolution.

I find it easy to admire the man, but somewhat harder to love the films, which tend to plod or, as in the case of the aptly titled "Nemuru Otoko (The Sleeping Man)" (1996), abandon story altogether in favor of long shots of the town waterwheel turning and the title character snoozing.

Oguri's latest film, "Umoregi (The Buried Forest)," resembles "Nemuru Otoko" in mood and setting -- a drowsy, paradisical corner of rural Mie Prefecture where time seems to have stopped in 1955.

Instead of glancing at my watch, however, I found myself dreaming Oguri's dream, eyes wide open; even though his boundaries between dream and reality weren't always clear -- even detectable.

One comparison is with that ur-text of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude." But whereas Marquez's vision can be as violent and phantasmagoric as the Columbian jungle, Oguri's is gentle-spirited and rooted in the human, the everyday and the rice-shoots-are-green natural world. There is a camel, but it clumps camel-listically; it does not sprout wings and fly.

It's a culmination, this vision, that seems to show that Oguri, now approaching 60, has reached a place he has long been seeking. That this place has the atmosphere of decades past. That its story begins with a teenage girl's fantasy, is no accident. Our beginnings, Oguri tells us with almost every frame, are the essence of who we are -- and what we eventually return to. Some of us, hurried along by the demands and distractions of the moment, need reminding. Oguri, with the tenacity of a saint, has never allowed himself to forget.

Not that "Umoregi" is forbiddingly austere. Instead, it is surprisingly close in spirit to the folksy, warm-hearted films of Yoji Yamada (who supplied Oguri with a program blurb). There is no exact equivalent to Yamada's signature character Tora-san -- a feckless peddler who never saved a, yen or got the girl -- but there is Tadanobu Asano as San-chan, a friendly, if moody, long-haired local of uncertain occupation, whose big ambition is to launch a hot-air float at the town festival. The king of indie films, known for his unreadable silences and explosive rages, Asano grins, in one climactic closeup, as though his face were splitting. It's "Umoregi's" biggest miracle -- in human terms at least.

The heroine, however, is Machi, a high-school girl on her summer break, who, to ease the boredom, proposes a round-robin story-telling game to two of her friends. She starts, with the tale of a camel, who the pet-shop owner has purchased, coming to town. The other girls chime in, spinning stories that start to come to life -- in their imaginations.

Meanwhile, San-chan cruises the roads in a red muscle car, together with a few local bikers -- who do nothing more rebellious than invade the town's only convenience store. He also hangs out with the folks at a ramshackle market, where customers seldom come, but where time passes pleasantly, if slowly. Then excitement arrives in the form of a package from Brazil containing an enormous egg from an elephant bird, a creature extinct for hundreds of years. It is one of several signs and portents of more mysterious things to come.

One night a hard rain falls and the next morning the villagers find a huge hole where the gateball field used to be. In the middle is the trunk of a fossilized tree, buried in a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago. They soon discover many more, standing with solemn, lonely dignity in an underground cavern. Machi and her friends could never have imagined this.

This is not to say the entire village is one big happy family, enjoying the occasional wonder. An old woman (Sumiko Sakamoto) sits in the middle of the street, complaining bitterly about a decision to send her to a nursing home, as a curious crowd gathers. The three girls listen to her laments and stories until the break of dawn -- but have no miraculous cure for her weak legs.

Oguri and his collaborators, including art directors Yokoo Yoshinaga and Koichi Takeuchi, meld the film's disparate elements and images into a vibrantly beautiful, deeply interconnected whole. Their buried forest glows with a warm, sacred light, like a cathedral made by a master builder over the ages. Not even Oguri could be that persistent -- but his film amazes anyway. May we all live to see the next.

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