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Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2005

When the heat is on step back in time

Summer Time Machine Blues

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Katsuyuki Motohiro
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Katsuyuki Motohiro has directed three of the biggest Japanese hits of the past decade: "Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown, 1998)," "Odoru Daisosasen 2 (Bayside Shakedown 2, 2003)" and "Koshonin Mashita Masayoshi (The Negotiator)," a spin-off from the "OD" films that has earned 4.2 billion yen since its May release, more than any other domestic film this year. This pales in comparison with "OD2," whose gross of 17.35 billion yen is an all-time record for a live-action Japanese movie.

News photo

By all rights, Motohiro should be a Japanese Spielberg, the master of his own cinematic universe. He is not, yet -- at any rate, because the "OD" franchise is less his personal vision than a TV series writ large, with Fuji TV producer Chihiro Kameyama taking a leading creative role.

Motohiro, who came up through the TV ranks, is a willing player on Kameyama's team, but he has also made his own, nonseries films, including the bank-heist thriller "Space Travelers" (2000) and the fantasy "Satorare" (2001), about an unfortunate whose thoughts can be read by all around him. Popular entertainments all, they demonstrate Motohiro's talent at combining action, comedy and melodrama with a bubbly inventiveness and energy that are hard to dislike, despite occasional descents into smirky clowning or Hollywood action cliches.

Though his shotmaking has a Spielbergian smoothness and sweep, Motohiro is less a technical virtuoso than a movie geek turned seasoned pro, who can connect with his pop-culture-saturated young fans because he is still one of them at heart.

His latest film, "Summer Time Machine Blues," is more identifiably his than his Fuji TV hits, adding more knock-about comedy and wacky fantasy to the mix than the OD formula allows. Based on a script by Makoto Ueno, a leader of the Europa Kikaku (European Plan) comedy troupe, the film stars five members of the troupe as nerds who belong to the university science-fiction club -- and find themselves in a time-traveling adventure that quickly devolves into a mind-twisting, reality-altering nightmare.

Other principals include TV drama heartthrob Eita ("Waterboys") as a club member and Juri Ueno ("Swing Girls") and Yoko Maki ("The Grudge") as two amateur photographers who, absent the scrumptious Eita, would probably distance themselves as much as possible from the club's nerds.

The basic structure -- a gang of whackos provide laughs, while a dull-but-handsome leading man pitches woo to an ingenue -- is that of the Marx Brothers comedies, but unlike Groucho, Harpo and Chico, who had different onscreen personalities and schticks, Europa Kikaku's gang of five performs as a single manzai organism, their individuality gradually emerging through the nonstop chatter and mugging. Also, by the time I had them sorted out, the plot had become one big, scrambled Rubic's Cube. Instead of ascending into Marxian heights of farce and satire, the story revolves around the frantic solution of this geeky puzzle.

There are laughs along the way, including a scene in a bathhouse that vaguely recalls the classic mirror sequence in "Duck Soup," but the whole exercise is a TV comedy skit with ambition. No sly digs at the Freedonian powers-that-be, no message at all, save the obvious: Be careful what you wish for.

The setting is a college campus during the summer break; the date, Aug. 19. The six members of the SF Study Circle are playing a poor game of baseball, while the earnest-if-cute Ito (Maki) dashes about snapping pictures. Meanwhile, another camera club hottie, Shibata (Ueda), is working in the darkroom adjacent to the SF clubhouse, which is crammed from floor to ceiling with otaku toys and knickknacks. After the game, the boys retire to a nearby bathhouse for a quiet dip, until the round-faced Niimi (Yoshiaki Yoza) notices that his Vidal Sassoon shampoo is missing -- and goes ballistic.

After this tempest in a tub blows over, the club members go their separate ways. The shy-but-cute Komoto (Eita) buys two tickets to an SF movie, hoping to give one to Shibata, who has a secret crush on. But when he returns to the clubhouse, a comedy of errors ensues, gumming up the remote control for the room's one air conditioner, a lifeline on hot summer days.

On the 20th, the boys sally forth to repair the remote and find a temporary replacement for the air conditioner. Returning, unsuccessfully, to the clubhouse they discover a tongue-tied stranger with a pudding-bowl haircut (Isao Honda) and an odd contraption in the corner. The stranger soon disappears, but the contraption remains -- and turns out to be a replica of the time machine in the 1960 George Pal classic "The Time Machine." The scrawny-but-intrepid Soga (Munenori Nagano) climbs aboard, sets the date to the 19th, turns the little lever and whoosh!

This, as it turns out, is the first of a series of unfortunate events that threatens to change the future, and not for the better. Think of the story of "Back to the Future," but with the principals scrambling to put everything back the way it was before the time machine first made its appearance, right down to the remote on the clubhouse table.

The stakes, though, aren't as high as when Michael J. Fox had to make his parents kiss at the high-school prom, or see his entire existence wiped off the space-time continuum. Instead the boys are like tarento on a sadistic variety show, set an absurd but grueling task for the entertainment of the TV masses. Ms. Ueno, meanwhile, is a delight -- but where is Groucho's paramour Margaret Rutherford when we need her?

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