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Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2005


Troubled youth on a road to nowhere

17-Sai no Fukei

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Koji Wakamatsu
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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We're all familiar with the figure of the old director, a power in his time, who has fallen into a rut or slump, but longs to recapture former glories, while lamenting the sad state of movies and the world in general.

News photo
Tasuku Emoto in "17-Sai no Fukei"

Then there is Koji Wakamatsu, an enfant terrible of the 1960s, who made experimental/political/erotic films that scandalized guardians of public morals, and who associated with notorious radicals, including scriptwriter and Japanese Red Army soldier Masao Adachi.

In the 1970s Wakamatsu became "king of the pinks," churning out soft porn flicks on the cheap and by the dozen, until the video revolution of the 1980s marginalized pink-film production. He also took on more mainstream assignments, but with patchy success, and in recent years, plagued by health problems, has struggled to keep working.

Instead of descending into embittered codgerdom, however, Wakamatsu has made a film, "17-Sai no Fukei -- Shonen wa Nani o Mita no ka (Scenery of Seventeen -- What Did the Boy See?)," that expresses the sort of personal passion and formal boldness I seldom see in the work of directors half his age.

At the same time, it is the film of a veteran who, after decades of flouting conventions and pushing boundaries, now has the confidence and daring to be simple, basic and direct.

"All you need for a movie is a girl and gun," Wakamatsu idol Jean-Luc Godard famously declared. For "17-Sai no Fukei" Wakamatsu has substituted the girl with a teenage boy and the gun with a bicycle, while inserting a sharp-edged (if familiar) critique of Japanese society and making his audience see the world through his troubled hero's eyes. A film that at first seems little more than spinning wheels and labored breathing develops a hypnotic power, poetic resonance and even narrative momentum, despite a lack of standard movie incident.

It is based on the true story of a 17-year-old boy in Okayama Prefecture who, in the winter of 2000, killed his mother with a baseball bat and fled to the north country on his mountain bike, pedaling for 17 days until the police ran him to ground.

What intrigued Wakamatsu about this story was not just the rare and atrocious nature of the boy's crime, but his form of escape. Why north in the dead of winter? Rejecting easy explanations, from pop psychology or elsewhere, Wakamatsu retraced the boy's steps, trying to see what he had seen. In the wild, rugged mountains and sea coasts of Tohoku, he found intimations of the boy's state of mind. He also found the makings of a film.

On January 6, 2004, Wakamatsu and a tiny crew started a 17-day shoot that approximated the boy's route, though their starting and ending points (Ikebukuro and the northern tip of Honshu) were different. They filmed on the fly, without a script, though Wakamatsu and three collaborators wrote one later.

Playing the boy, newcomer Tasuku Emoto spends much screen time climbing hills and battling winds, while saying little or nothing to the various people he encounters on the way.

This may sound like the very definition of boredom -- a two-wheeled trip to nowhere, with a sullen teenager as a reluctant guide. And yet the sight of the boy's whirling legs and mask of a face, as he slogs though a winter landscape of desolate beauty, compels attention and invites speculation. Is he trying to obliterate feelings of guilt and regret -- to literally sweat and freeze them out? Or is his journey a form of atonement through self-inflicted suffering?

Instead of giving us clear-cut answers, the film supplies the boy's unfiltered thoughts, in captions and narration. As he passes though a Shinjuku crowd, at the start of his journey, captions flash on the screen: "Why are you gathered here? You have nothing to do with me. You are just scenery."

But he listens attentively to an old man in a station waiting room and an old Korean woman in a mountain hut, as they tell stories of being teenagers in wartime Japan. Unlike him, they want their memories to endure -- and are articulate and passionate in relating them.

Though he never drops his mask, the boy connects with them in a way he never could with his own parents: They have no need or desire to judge him, while also having experienced deadly violence, if in extremely different circumstances.

Finally, he arrives at a rocky coast, with no other human beings in sight. His bike chain is broken and his memories -- of his neat room, his smiling mother, his bat descending in a vicious arc -- are still with him. Is he trapped in a hell of his own making? Or can he be saved -- or save himself?

The climax, like much of the rest of the film, is open to interpretation. The boy is not a protagonist in a morality play, but an empty vessel that will accept anything poured into it -- from rote education to parental expectations -- until it cracks and shatters. His journey is also ours, to make of what we will, as we pedal with him into the night.

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