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Friday, March 3, 2006

Lost in the supermarket

Kencho no Hoshi

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Hiroshi Nishitani
Running time: 131 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

In 1996, Juzo Itami released the film that was to be his last hit -- "Super no Onna (Supermarket Woman)," a comic, inside look at the supermarket game, starring Masahiko Tsugawa as the alcoholic manager of a failing store and Nobuko Miyamoto as the sharp-tongued customer who saves the supermarket -- and the manager -- from disaster.

News photo
Ko Shibasaki and Yuji Oda in "Kencho no Hoshi"

Based on Itami's own extensive research, the film made everyone who saw it a smarter shopper, or at least more aware of what goes into those bargain bento. (Unfortunately, its success didn't stop Itami from taking his own life in 1998).

A decade on, veteran TV drama director Hiroshi Nishitani is making his feature debut in "Kencho no Hoshi (Star of the Prefectural Government)," another film set in a supermarket -- and another confirmation that some things never change, including the dodgy boxed lunches. Based on a best-selling novel of the same title, his film is less detailed than Itami's about the inner workings of the business, but is still a rare, up-close look at not just workplace politics, but politics at the prefectural level, where corruption is like cedar pollen -- omnipresent and inescapable, though not everyone is a sufferer (or rather, perpetrator).

Given that "Kencho no Hoshi" is intended for everyone from salarymen to dating couples, with backing from the Fuji TV network, this slant indicates that politics, at least in the reforming, populist mode, is now of interest to the masses, not just the chattering classes.

An encouraging sign, I suppose, though those who are expecting a Japanese version of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" -- Frank Capra's ode to democracy -- will be disappointed. While as not as pessimistic about the human (or Japanese) condition as Itami, whose heroes were usually rogues of one sort or another, Nishitani does not go all mushy at the required happy ending. Kaikaku (reform) may be the film's rallying cry, but it remains more a hope than a reality.

The story also references "Ikiru," Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic about a dying bureaucrat who learns to live after decades of being a paper-pushing automaton. The hero, Satoru Nomura (Yuji Oda), is young, with most of a brilliant career still ahead of him, but has little feeling, save condescension, for the people he is supposed to serve.

Instead he has been slaving on a huge seaside development for the elderly that, if given the green light (or rather, the right hanko), will put him on the inside track to the top, where he knows he belongs. He is also preparing to marry the beautiful daughter of a construction company president who holds all the keys to the political and bureaucratic kingdoms.

Some of the locals, however, have been raising a rumpus about the project and, to keep the peace, the prefectural powers-that-be set up a sort of exchange program for elite young bureaucrats, who are dispatched to local businesses to observe, learn and even serve.

Nomura is sent to Mantendo, a third-rate supermarket sliding into oblivion. His trainer, Aki Ninomiya (Ko Shibasaki), is a hard-shelled part-timer in her mid-20s who takes an immediate dislike to him. Clearly, someone has made a mistake.

Rather than try to make nice with his new colleagues and customers, Nomura stays as rigid as the manuals he lives by. He knows better than these peasants, even though he knows nothing. Ninomiya, on the other hand, is a straightforward, down-to-earth type who kowtows to no one, not even Kencho-san (Nomura's moniker among the store employees, which translates as Mr. Prefectural Government). These two butt heads from day one -- and it soon becomes obvious the entire store agrees with Ninomiya: The new guy is a cross they have to bear and keep, as much as possible, out of the way.

The story is all-too-obviously about Nomura's education as a human being. So, of course, he must first be brought low. He comes up with a scheme for boosting profits with luxury box lunches, but he and his motley kitchen crew of Third World foreigners and a sullen ex-punk are slaughtered in a sales contest by a team making cheap generic bento in clear plastic boxes. Then he learns that his big development project has been hijacked by the speaker of the prefectural assembly (Koji Ishizaka) and his cronies. Soon after comes the biggest, cruelest blow of all, that reduces him to a quivering, sobbing wreck.

All par for the formula course. Where "Kencho no Hoshi" departs from it is Nomura's relationship with, not only Ninomiya, but his work. Instead of simply humbling him, his difficulties spur him to greater efforts -- and reveal him as a smart, organized, driven human being who has something to contribute beside his arrogance. This, when you think about it, is not so strange, since elites usually get to be elites for a reason -- but it goes against the formula.

Also, Nomura stays on his best behavior with Ninomiya, even after she starts to see his good points. The sexual sparks that would ordinarily be flying in a Hollywood film from take one are seldom seen. Instead, they become colleagues focused less on each other than the common goal of saving the store. Again, the sort of thing that happens all the time in real life, but less so in the movies. Eventually they realize that they like . . . but I don't have to fill in the rest, do I?

Yuji Oda, the star of the megahit "Odoru Daisosasen (Bayside Shakedown)" films, gets the best lines, including a rousing speech at the end that recalls Jimmy Stewart's in "Mr. Smith." But Ko Shibasaki, who played a similar prole role in last year's "Maison de Himiko," is the film's anchor in the real. No airs, no false notes, but rather a woman who knows exactly who she is and a woman whose eyes can slice straight through you -- or laugh you out of your shell (or in Nomura's case, off his perch). She makes "Kencho no Hoshi" a prime cut above the genre run, but she really ought to be in action movies. Imagine her in Meiko Kaji's avenging angel role in "Shurayuki Hime (Lady Snowblood)." Quentin Tarantino would be at her feet, contract in hand.

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