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Friday, April 7, 2006

Okinawan musical legend feted

Namii to Utaeba

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Seiichi Motohashi
Running time: 98 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Documentaries are a hot genre now, though the most popular ones, such as Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11," and Morgan Spurlock's "Supersize Me," tend to be more like reality shows with their scripted story arcs and comic schticks than traditional, earnest just-the-facts docs.

News photo
Namii Arashiro in "Namii to Utaeba"

Moore, especially, is often doing a political manzai act, with gun nuts and George Bush playing the boke dimwits and Moore, the straight guy, himself delivering the tsukkomi punch lines. If the facts get in the way of a good gag -- the facts often get rearranged or lost. Hey, it's all in a good cause, right?

Seiichi Motohashi takes a different approach, as I first discovered with his 1997 film "Nadja no Mura (Nadja's Village)." He went to Belarus to film the destruction, human and natural, wrought by the Chernobyl disaster. Instead he found country folk still living in the forbidden area around the abandoned nuclear power plant, even though their fields and forests had been poisoned for generations. Many of them were old, nearly all of them were poor, but they were full of a vitality and, yes, humor that Motohashi's camera unobtrusively recorded over a period of months. He also captured the changing seasons of their land, which had the look of a rural paradise.

The result, presented in long cuts without a narrative voice-over or talking heads commentary, ran against received opinion of what such a disaster area and its victims should look like. Surely, the critics asked, Motohashi must be glossing over and prettifying? Yes, he could have spent more time in the cancer wards, less in the countryside -- but by focusing on the survivors (or if you will, die-hards), he got at something essential about the human spirit that the hordes of journos who had covered Chernobyl from the usual hard news angles had somehow missed.

In his new film, "Namii to Utaeba (If You Sing with Namii)," about an 85-year-old performer of traditional Okinawan music, Motohashi's take is quite different. Instead of elegiac shots of lonely country roads, he gives us a pint-size life force in full, uninhibited cry. Again, he could be charged with ignoring certain grim local realties. What about the American bases?

But Namii Arashiro, a native of Ishigaki Island who has been playing sanshin and singing the local minyo (folk songs) since she was a girl, is his subject, and he captures her in the round. Not just as a performer who released her first CD at the age of 83 and later went on her first overseas concert tour (visiting a center for leprosy patients in Taiwan), but also as a woman who lives for her music every day, in every aspect of her life. In the process she has become a living encyclopedia of Okinawan folk songs, who has never stopping studying (we see her boning up on lyrics as she goes about her household tasks), as well as a bottomless well of vitality for everyone around her. She even has a small entourage consisting of longtime students Nobuko Ko and Shizuo Ota, who serve as audience, drinking buddies and, in the 57-year-old Ota's case, designated "boyfriend."

Watching Namii on her daily rounds, from greeting the gods and the spirit of her dead husband at her elaborate home altar to making what seem to be nightly visits to a favorite karaoke bar, I was reminded of "Whales of August," the 1987 Lindsay Anderson film that recorded two other aged dynamos -- Bette Davis and Lillian Gish -- in unforgettable action. Gish, especially, was in ceaseless motion, those huge eyes flashing just as they had flashed for director D.W. Griffith seven decades earlier. Namii matches her pace -- throwing in singing, dancing and flirting for good measure, though her weakening legs don't always cooperate. We never see her in front of a TV set -- or computer for that matter.

In addition to following Namii about -- and capturing the glow in the faces of everyone she meets -- Motohashi shows us the usual old photographs, while Namii talks about her early hardships and long career as a performer. His framing device, however, is a live concert in Kumamoto at which Namii sings, plays and tells stories, with a hakama- and haori-clad female MC (Utaki) serving as interviewer. This adds dynamism to what might have otherwise been a stock bio, as well as showing us, in extended cuts, exactly how Namii can still rock the house.

As we come to see, this device was also essential in getting Namii to reminisce, period. Her philosophy, expressed again and again in words and action, is to live in the present, one day at a time. Or as legendary pitcher Satchel Paige once put it, "Don't look back -- something might be gaining on you." Sounds good to me.

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