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Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2005
This one's best laid to rest
Makers of comedies have been pushing back the borders of taste for decades, from Mel Brooks' "The Producers" in 1968, with its Broadway musical about Hitler's love life, to Paul Provenza's documentary "The Aristocrats (2005)," in which 100 comedians tell their own versions of the ultimate dirty joke -- a Mount Everest of obscenity. What taboos are there left to violate? Dancan -- a comedian who was an early recruit to Takeshi Kitano's gundan (army) of comic apprentices and is still associated with the Office Kitano agency -- answers that question in his debut feature, "Shichinin no Tomurai (The Innocent Seven)."
The premise: a motley crew of child abusers agree to sell their kids to a mysterious syndicate. The condition: they have to endure a camping trip with the brats, led by the syndicate's poker-faced agent (Dancan), who reminds them that fewer kids at the end of the trip means more loot for the guardians of the survivors. What twisted brain came up with this sick idea?
Dancan wrote the script for "Shichinin no Tomurai," but it is not the first time he has written such an unsettling tale. "Ikinai" -- a 1998 Office Kitano film -- was about a motley crew of debtors who sign on for a bus tour, again conducted by a dour-looking Dancan, that is scheduled to end with a fatal plunge over a cliff for insurance money. Also, both films have titles that are homages to Akira Kurosawa classics: "Ikinai," references "Ikiru" and "Shichinin no Tomurai" is close to "Shichinin no Samurai (The Seven Samurai)." "Ikinai," however, is blackly funny while "Shichinin no Tomurai," with a few scattered exceptions, is emphatically not. The actors playing the adult characters mug and clown strenuously enough, but to little comic effect. This has less to do with talent than tone and content. It's somewhat like asking the cast playing the Nazi characters in "Schindler's List" to ham it up as they torture and slaughter Jews.
What a laugh -- fiends with murderous designs on their own kids! Sorry, but the whole idea is off, wrong, disgusting. Dancan gets this, to a point -- only Jeffrey Dahmer wouldn't. He accordingly offsets the adult antics with more serious, if, at times, over-the-top, performances from his youngest cast members, as well as un-ironic flashbacks to the children's horrific home lives.
Meanwhile he plays the group leader, Hitoshi Kakiuchi, with little comic inflection. The intention, I suppose, is to elicit the entire spectrum of reactions from the audience -- laughs at the clumsy schemings of the perfidious parents, sighs at the suffering of their young victims, and cheers as the victims start to take their revenge. The laughs, however, stuck in my throat -- or rather never got started. This may mean I just don't get it -- millions have laughed for decades at Kitano and company's often transgressive and sadistic brand of humor. But I didn't hear many chortles, guffaws or other audible signs of comic pleasure from the packed house at Theater Shinjuku.
Perhaps I just wasn't listening hard enough. The trip begins ordinarily enough, near a rushing river in the woods. After scenes of frolic and play, with a vaguely sinister undercurrent, Kakiuchi convenes a parent's meeting at which he unveils his obscene proposition: wads of cash for unwanted kids. The parents raise questions, but no real objections -- they all seem to need the dough more than their offspring. One is Kawahara (Ikkei Watanabe), a degenerate gambler who is cordially loathed by his teenage son Junpei (Tomoya Nakamura). Another is Yanagioka (Hajime Yamazaki), a tightly clenched businessman with eight kids whose company is unraveling.
What's one less mouth to feed? Especially 10-year-old Saburo (Shunki Tojima), who delights in telling annoying riddles. Another is the childish, hyper Yokoyama (Yoichi Nukumizu), who is also drowning in debt -- and is torn between love and loathing for his mopey son Kazuki (Shuto Hatano). Another is Kimiyo (Hitomi Takahashi), a middle-aged single mom who has taken a young lover (Yoshitatsu Yamada) and now finds her 14-year-old daughter Harumi (Makoto Kawahara) irritatingly in the way.
Among the standouts of this crew are the bearded Nishiyama (Pepe Hozumi) and his new wife, Michiyo (Kaoru Mizuki) -- the camp's only married couple -- who whisper sweet, callously selfish nothings at night in their tent, while daughter Shoko (Miyu Yagyu) silently weeps. Then there is the religious nut, the beady-eyed Maeda (Yoshiki Arizono), who "baptizes" his son Shoichi (Keito Ishihara) by nearly drowning him in the bath.
After the meeting, strange things start happening. One child falls ill from something slipped into his drink, while another nearly tumbles down a cliff after a rescue rope is cut by an anonymous hand. Then a thief invades the camp and takes a boy hostage. He is rescued, but that eminence grise, Kakiuchi, is preparing one final, fatal drama of his own.
The various incidents on the way to this drama don't add up to much, while the sharp veerings in tone, from frantic slapstick to overwrought confrontation, as well as the glaring contrast between the normal (if damaged) kids and the cartoony (if evil) adults, undermine credibility.
Even the ending, intended as a big, shattering surprise, is telegraphed well in advance, like a TV comedian smirking before he delivers the punch line. "Shichinin no Tomurai," which translates as "Seven Funerals," is a teaser title -- whose funerals does it refer to? The movie itself, though, is a terminal case, doomed from the script, page one.