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Friday, Dec. 2, 2005

Wet dreams and zombies

Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Mitsuru Meike
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Tokyo Zombie

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Running time: 103 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Dec. 10
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Japanese film people will often tell you that Japanese directors don't do comedy very well. If they are talking about the box office, they have a point -- the masses are often reluctant to pay for big-screen laughs when they can get them for free on the tube.

News photo
Emi Kuroda in "Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai"

But if they are implying an inability to make funny movies in original or outlandish ways, they are flat wrong. Recent case in point: Mitsuru Meike's "Hanai Sachiko no Karei na Shogai (The Glamorous Life of Sachiko Hanai)," which is now playing, with English subtitles, as the late show at the Pole Pole theater in Higashi Nakano. Originally intended for the flea pits that show "pink" (i.e., soft-core) films to elderly heavy breathers, it has been picked up by the international festival circuit and praised by eminent critics and scholars.

No wonder -- the 36-year-old Meike, who has long been laboring in the pink netherworld, has produced a weird, hilarious wet dream for intellectuals. As the film begins, the eponymous heroine (Emi Kuroda) is working as a "teacher" in an "image club" (a sex establishment where the whores role-play in costume). Blessed with a curvy figure, but otherwise entirely ordinary, Sachiko becomes an unwilling witness to a shooting in a coffee shop -- and takes a round from the killer (Takeshi Ito) that lodges in her noggin.

Instead of silencing her forever, however, the bullet sends her IQ soaring. She devours books by Kant, Sartre, Sontag and Chomsky and starts spouting brainy babble, like the Tin Man after getting his diploma from the Wizard of Oz. She visits seedy professor Saeki (Yukijro Hotaru), who authored one of her favorite tomes, and soon has his glasses steaming. Having found his ultimate erotic playmate, who can quote from "The Critique of Pure Reason" as she climaxes, Saeki installs her in his home as a tutor to his nerdy son (Tetsuaki Matsue), while his skeptical wife (Kyoko Hayami) wonders what is really going on behind closed doors. Meanwhile, Sachiko's would-be killer -- a North Korean spy -- is on her trail to not only finish what he started, but to retrieve the cloned finger of George W. Bush that Sachiko picked up on her dazed way out the coffee shop door.

While following the pink formula -- one scene of simulated sex every 10 minutes or so -- the film offers hope to all the guys in the seats who look more like Sachiko's schlumpy sex partners than Brad Pitt. It also rudely satirizes everything from academic pretension to the foreign policy of Bush, whose wiggly finger conducts its own "invasion" between Sachiko's thighs, while an actor wearing a mask of the president smirks from a nearby TV monitor.

Boosted by Emi Kuroda's skilled erotic contortions (as well as by her ability to rattle off her pseudo-intellectual dialogue as though she understands it) and Takao Nakano's deeply wacky script, "Hanai Sachiko" rises above the smutty genre run to minor classic status, sex-comedy division. Coming soon to a film-study curriculum near you.

* * * Sakichi Sato's "Tokyo Zombie," as the title signals, is more of a straight-forward genre parody. Based on a Yusaku Ha-nakuma comic, it begins as a "Dumb and Dumber" clone, with Sho Aikawa and Tadanobu Asano as two eccentric workers in a fire-extinguisher warehouse who kill time practicing jujitsu with each other. The bald Fujio (Aikawa) is the steelyeyed sensei; the Afro-haired Mitsuo (Asano), his dim-witted deshi (student).

Nearby is "Black Fuji," a mound of refuse where the citizens of Tokyo deposit everything from used computers to corpses. Revived by toxic waste, the latter begin arising from their unquiet graves as zombies. After Fujio and Mi-tsuo find themselves under ravenous assault (the zombies, as it their wont, crave living flesh), they jump in their gaily painted van and hightail it out of Tokyo.

Fujio's goal is Russia, where he plans to train Mitsuo in the most manly of martial arts, but Mitsuo, the doofus, heads south toward Atami. On the way they save a feisty punk girl, Yoko (Erika Okuda), from zombie hordes -- but Fujio becomes . . . one of the disappeared

Flash forward five years. Tokyo has been taken over by zombies, with the few remaining humans huddled in condo tower compounds and divided sharply between the rich and the poor. Among the latter are Mitsuo and Yoko, now a couple with a child. While Yoko cares for the little one, Mitsuo fights in gladiatorial battles with zombies, watched by bored rich women and paid peanuts by a floridly homosexual manager/MC.

Using the jujitsu techniques he learned from Fujio, Mitsuo quickly flattens his living-dead opponents. Too quickly for the fans, who want more blood, fake or otherwise -- but Fujio refuses to compromise his art. Then he finally encounters a zombie opponent worthy of him -- the start of a series of absurd events that will change his life and shake the corrupt social order to its foundations.

Asano and Aikawa make a surprisingly good comic team -- surprising mainly because Asano, the best serious actor of his generation, proves to be a natural as a natural-born fool. (Think Sean Penn reverting to his Jeff Spicoli character in "Fast Times at Ridgemont High").

The film takes jabs at various easy targets (boorish wealthy women, needy gay men) but most of the laughs come from Fujio and Mitsuo's odd-squad friendship. When they are not on screen together, the film sags, and when Mitsuo and Yoko fight lovelessly, while their little girl looks on mutely, it descends to bad home drama. But Asano and Aikawa are together enough and the action is inventively amusing enough to keep the lapses from mattering too much. The title makes a certain promise and Sato and company mostly deliver on it. You didn't think this movie was Billy Wilder, did you?

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