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Friday, April 14, 2006

Movie-making -- such a simple task



Eiga Kantoku ni Naru Houhou

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tomoko Matsunashi
Running time: 94 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

What is a musical? The answer, from Broadway and Hollywood, is a musical play or film in which the songs are integrated into the story and the story unfolds in a naturalistic setting. Eliza Doolittle returns from a ball in 19th-century London and, bursting with excitement and joy, sings "I Could Have Danced All Night."

News photo
Marie Machida in "Eiga Kantoku ni Naru Houhou"

By this definition, Japanese don't do musicals. There are have been a few attempts over the years to follow the American model, such as Masahiro Makino's "Oshidori Utagassen (Singing Lovebirds)" in 1939 and Eizo Sugawa's "Kimi mo Shusse ga Dekiru (You Can Be Promoted Too)" in 1964, but for the most part the Japanese musical film has gone its own way, in which songs and story are separate and distinct, much as, in Japanese cuisine, the fish and soy sauce are served separately. (Americans, on the other hand, eat everything from the same big plate.)

One new example is Tomoko Matsu-nashi's "Eiga Kantoku ni Naru Houhou (How To Become a Movie Director)," which has the same basic premise as all those goofy "how to get ahead in business" musical films of the 1960s with the Crazy Cats and Hitoshi Ueki, as well as the above mentioned "Kimi mo Shusse ga Dekiru" (which famously flopped).

But where Ueki's turns as a cheerfully callous, irrepressibly ambitious salaryman appealed to the blue-suited mainstream, Matsunashi's DV film about three movie nerds who will do anything to be real kantoku (directors) with a real film in a real theater is playfully, obstreperously not for everyone. Matsunashi, who has been shooting indie films for nearly a decade with members of her Chika Tent Robakun troupe, has deliberately (and not so deliberately) made "Eiga Kantoku" in-jokey, technically patchy, tonally all over the map, from kitchily cute to retchingly gross.

At the same time its satire of the lowest reaches of the movie business is informed, on target and funny, if about as subtle as a knee to the groin (or, in Matsunashi's case, a close-up of a severed arm spurting fake blood). Also, the story builds, twists and, at the end, returns cleverly to its beginning, while characters introduced as crude cartoons acquire human features. They are, we realize, types Matsunashi knows inside out -- and may have even once been herself, though she shows no mercy to any of her creations.

The most manga-esque is Kitagawa (Norio Manta), a putty-faced, pouting genius who has never outgrown the terrible twos. For this obnoxious brat, whose Mommy picks up his things on her hands and knees at his snarled command, filmmaking is the ultimate confirmation of me, me, me.

He submits his latest masterpiece -- which begins with a shot of him frantically masturbating, back to the camera -- to a student film festival. Naturally, he wins the grand prize and, in his acceptance speech, spews his disdain of his fellow contestants, the elderly jury chairman and the contest itself. Instead of getting his richly deserved comeuppance, he secures the sexual favors of Sakurako (Matsunashi) -- a wannabe actress who sees herself starring in Kitagawa's new movie. But his career stalls until he takes up the offer of his only friend, the pudgy, smiley Yamamoto (Yoshipiyo Ito), to join him in making porn.

Meanwhile, the two contest runners-up -- nerdy Saito (Marie Machida) and softly handsome Okuyama (Itsuki Fujii) -- pursue their own destinies. Okuyama becomes the lover of the jury chairman and, with his help, receives a prestigious film scholarship. Naturally, Kitagawa goes ballistic when he hears the news.

Saito tries to sell her prize-winner to Araki (Takashi Tokuzoji), the skeptical manager of an art-house theater, who knows that student films are about as marketable as used Kleenex. A fan of female "cosplay" (dressing up in costumes from popular anime. etc.), he has the brilliant idea of transforming Saito into a character in her own films: "Ichigochan" -- a defender of justice in a miniskirt and huge strawberry headpiece. Fans, mostly male, are stopped in their tracks by her get-up and buy tickets to her cult hits, which combine singing and dancing with torture and dismemberment. A directorial star is born.

Nearly all the principals, in fact, sing in this film -- belting out brassy Broadway-style numbers, if not with Broadway-style production values. Matsu-nashi, however, makes up for her lack of expensive sets with costumes, camera-work and chutzpah.

She also skewers various targets, including male vanity and female masochism, with impartial glee. Her great equalizer is sex, with everyone humping away like AV actors on overdrive. In her world, there are no saints, no demons -- just driven movie geeks and their enablers, who dream big dreams, but whose reality is a mad, merciless scramble for scraps of cinematic glory.

As Kitagawa, Manta comes the closest to monsterdom -- his face contorted into masks of scorn, rage and general egomania. It gets tiring watching him pull faces, but as the story progresses, and the failures, embarrassments and disasters pile up, he becomes a more -- dare I say it? -- sympathetic fellow. His Kitagawa is an idiot, but he also lives, breathes and suffers for his art. Oh, how he suffers.

Naturally, he does not get the last laugh. Enough to say that someone does -- a triumph that is the perfect, absurd coda to a film that gets so much else right. How to become a movie director? It helps, Matsunashi tells us with a wink, to be in the right place at the right time. To which I say, how right you are.



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