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Thursday, Jan. 19, 2006

Dangerous role play

Camus Nante Shiranai

Rating: * * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Mitsuo Yanagimachi
Running time: 115 minutes
Language: Japanese
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With most movies, the characters, stories and themes are right on the surface, as easy to read as a poster blurb. That has always been the case, in both Japan and Hollywood, but with more Japanese directors coming from the worlds of TV, advertising and music videos, trained in the art of making the obvious simple for the restless, more Japanese movies are effects shows, gimmicky melodramas or some combination thereof. Some of these directors have auteurist aspirations, but few indeed have the auteurist necessaries: a developed world view, a distinct artistic persona and an ambition to go beyond the limits of genre and formula.

News photo
Shuji Kashiwabara and Hinano Yoshikawa

Mitsuo Yanagimachi, however, has long had these, beginning with his debut film, the 1976 biker documentary "God Speed You! Black Emperor" (one of the coolest movie titles ever). Over the years Yanagimachi has dealt again and again with alienated youth and isolated individuals in modern Japanese society, who respond violently to the collapse of traditional values. His heroes, such as the god-maddened woodsman in "Himatsuri (Fire Festival)" (1985) and the socially marginalized Chinese slaughterhouse worker in "Ai ni Tsuite, Tokyo (Of Love, Tokyo)" (1992) were enigmas whose actions could be selfish, criminal or simply insane, while their stories, told with stark, arresting images, went unswervingly to the dark heart of the world, human, inhuman and divine.

After making "Tabisuru Pao-jiang-hu (The Wandering Peddlers)" in 1995, a documentary about Taiwanese peddlers, Yanagimachi did not direct another film for a decade, though he taught film at Waseda University for three years.

He breaks his silence with "Camus Nante Shiranai (Who's Camus Anyway?)," a drama about a student film production, supervised by a teacher (Hirotaro Honda) who seems to be a Yanagimachi stand-in. The film was screened in the Directors Fortnight section of the 2005 Cannes Film Festival and won the Best Picture Award in the Japanese Eyes section of last year's Tokyo International Film Festival.

As one of the Japanese Eyes judges, I was struck, not only by Yanagimachi's ability to take up essentially where he had left off, but also by how far his film stood above the other 10 section entries. It might be in a lighter key than usual for Yanagimachi (only prop blood is shed, for one thing), but "Camus" is nonetheless an intricately structured, deeply meditated film, made by a master at the top of his form.

The film begins with a long, dazzling traveling shot of students and their teacher, Professor Nakajo (Honda), walking and intersecting across the Rikkyo University campus, similar to the technique employed by Robert Altman in "The Player." But Yanagimachi's shot is not, like Altman's, simply an attempt to be clever, but sets the stage for what is to come -- a film about a film that comments on the process of filmmaking, while brilliantly illustrating it.

The students, members of the literature department's film workshop, are preparing to shoot "The Bored Murderer," a film based on Albert Camus' "The Stranger." Things start going wrong almost immediately, beginning with the lead actor's sudden departure. The director, handsome, smooth-talking Matsukawa (Shuji Kashiwabara), soon recruits the blond Ikeda (Hideo Nakaizumi), whose seductive androgyny (though he insists he is straight) makes him perfect for the role of the alienated antihero, who decides to murder an old woman to see what it feels like.

News photo
The cast of "Camus Nante Shiranai"

Meanwhile, Matsukawa's clingy girlfriend, Yukari (Hinano Yoshikawa), who has transferred schools to be near him, is dubbed "Adele" by one film-literate student, after the love-obsessed title character in Francois Truffaut's "The History of Adele H."

Professor Nakajo's air of gloomy preoccupation inspires another student nickname: Aschenbach -- the doomed middle-aged hero of Luchino Visconti's "Death in Venice." Unbeknownst to the students, or anyone else, Nakajo is secretly infatuated with Rei (Meisa Kuroki), an exotic-looking beauty whom he watches dance each day (from a discreet distance) with a campus hip-hop crew.

The center of the film's romantic roundelay, however, is Hisada (Ai Maeda), the cute, intense assistant director of the "The Bored Murderer," whose boyfriend has gone off mountain climbing for a week. Matsukawa, Ikeda and the film's cameraman, Motosugi (Shinnosuke Abe), all take their opportunity to hit on her, with the first two stealing kisses. They may only be blowing off erotic steam in the pressure-cooker of a film shoot, but Hisada, a serious type, is wracked with guilt because she did little to discourage the advances.

From this description, it may sound as though Yanagimachi, who also wrote the script, is making little more than a campus love comedy, but as "Camus" moves into it's middle section, the story deepens and darkens. "Adele" abases herself before Matsukawa at every opportunity -- until she cracks under the weight of his indifference and disdain. Meanwhile, Aschenbach arranges to have lunch with Rei through their mutual acquaintance Oyama (Tomorowo Taguchi), an odd, intense 35-year-old grad student with an important secret of his own. When Aschenbach's plan goes awry -- never mind how -- he plunges into a drunken oblivion.

Meanwhile, on the set, Ikeda is getting deeper and deeper into the role of the student murderer. Will he, like Adele and Aschenbach, also cross a dangerous line? When the frenzy of production ends, what will have changed -- and what will remain?

The climax, in which that fake blood comes out, at first seems a radical departure from all that came before. But its very intensity -- as well as its blurring of fiction and reality -- powerfully sums up all that has happened. The blood, not being real, can be expunged -- but never the unholy impulses it symbolizes.

In making this leap in the dark (or rather into the darkness of the heart), Yanagimachi runs the risk of simply baffling his audience. Instead, he meticulously prepares it to leap with him, through gestures and acts whose whole meaning only becomes apparent later, by building an intricate web of relationships whose flawless design is less displayed than suggested (though it is certainly there to see).

His use of Ikeda typifies this process. Though sexually ambiguous and emotionally opaque, he impresses at first as less sinister than foppishly strange. And yet in rehearsal he clicks into his murderous character with a focus and certainty that, in retrospect, chills. His attempts at seduction -- in their suddenness and arbitrariness -- foreshadow later, deadlier acts, while shining a revealing light on his targets and upsetting their equilibrium.

But who is this interpreter of Camus, anyway? Like the other principals in Yanagimachi's masterfully choreographed dance of art and life, youth and age, desire and death, he is what real people often are: a multitude in one skin, whose mysteries can take a lifetime to plumb. Try putting that in a blurb.

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