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Friday, Oct. 14, 2005

No striking out for director Inudo

Maison de Himiko

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Isshin Inudo
Running time: 131 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Isshin Inudo
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Isshin Inudo has two hits in the theaters now, "Touch" and "Maison de Himiko," that differ dramatically in story -- the former is a seishun eiga (youth film) set in the world of high-school baseball, the latter a relationship drama set in a gay retirement home -- but both are part of the current boom for the romantic and melodramatic in contemporary guises.

News photo
Ko Shibasaki and Joe Odagiri in "Maison de Himiko" (top) and (above from left) Masami Nagasawa, Keita Saito and Shota Saito in "Touch"
News photo

But compared with the makers of "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World)" and other trendy lamentations for thwarted love, Inudo's sensibility is more identifiably indie, his foreign models more European than the currently fashionable Korean. In other words, more "Amelie" than "Winter Sonata."

What really sets Inudo apart, however, is his direction of his female stars. He has a way of humanizing them, so that even their detractors can find something to like or admire. He doesn't cut them down to size so much as bring out their private personalities, including the darker, quirkier sides.

In "Maison de Himiko," Ko Shibasaki abandons her glam-idol image in playing Saori, a sullen young woman who is working two jobs, one at a small painting company, another at a convenience store -- while scanning sex industry ads for ways to make even more cash.

One day a visitor with the delicately handsome looks of a shojo manga (girls' comic) hero comes to the company and offers her a job at a seaside home for elderly gays, which was founded by her father.

Saori is angered by his presumption: Dad (Min Tanaka) abandoned her and her mother years ago to run a tranny bar, changing his name to Himiko. The visitor, Haruhiko (Joe Odagiri), was once his lover. Now Dad, dying of cancer, is living at the home, called Maison de Himiko, under Haruhiko's care. She wants nothing to do with Haruhiko -- until he makes her a financial offer she can't refuse.

The Maison's residents, lovable eccentrics all, are delighted to see a new face, though Saori gives them only glares and scowls. For Himiko, a grand dame in a turban, she has not a word. The story has only one way to go from here -- toward tolerance, reconciliation and a bittersweet ending -- and go it does, but not as far or straight as the genre norm.

"Maison de Himiko" views its gay characters through a softening filter of benign stereotyping, though it underlines one unpleasant real-life fact -- they have only themselves to rely on, since their families will have little or nothing to do with them.

Also, it regards Saori's anger with real-life seriousness. She begins to soften toward Haruhiko -- a dishy-looking guy with unlimited reservoirs of patience -- but she finds it hard to completely forgive her father, the betrayer. Gaunt and hawklike in his death bed, he knows it too.

As Saori, Shibasaki makes no attempt to charm or play the drama queen. Instead she goes for a natural look and natural, non-PC emotions.

Natural in a different way is Masami Nagasawa in Inudo's "Touch," based on a 1980s manga by Mitsuru Adachi. She plays Minami Asakura, a girl who has been the inseparable friend of twin brothers Tatsuya (Shota Saito) and Kazuya (Keita Saito) since babyhood. Kazuya is now a star high-school baseball pitcher; Tatsuya, a struggling amateur boxer. Minami is the baseball team's manager and Tatsuya's rooter -- and knows too well that both boys are in love with her.

Before she is forced to make a choice, however, tragedy intervenes and Tatsuya is asked to take his brother's place on the mound, just as the team is battling for an all-important invitation to the National High School Baseball Tournament at Koshien Stadium in Hyogo Prefecture.

Inudo tells this story straight enough, though his casting of real-life twins Shota and Keita Saito sometimes makes it difficult to tell who is who. What raises the film above the seishun eiga run, though, is Nagasawa, who is on screen in nearly every scene and rarely seems to be acting in any of them. She gave a similar -- and career-making performance -- in "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu," but in "Touch" she is asked to stretch farther -- and does so, bringing a youthful energy, passion and endearing clunkiness to even hackneyed situations -- including a frantic, last minute run to see Tatsuya's big game.

I liked her better, though, in moments when she is simply reacting or thinking, her mobile features as unguarded as a child's. In a year or two those features will change -- and that vulnerability will disappear forever -- but Inudo has captured it perfectly. How does he, of all the directors out there, do it?

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