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Friday, April 28, 2006

Gross, but down to earth

Nezu no Ban

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Masahiko Makino
Running time: 108 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Does the West have anything like rakugo, which is usually translated, lamely, as "comic storytelling?" Rakugoka -- the storytellers -- dress in kimono, hold a fan, sit on a zabuton cushion and tell shaggy dog stories that, in some cases, are hundreds of years old. Sounds like the very definition of "dying art," doesn't it?

News photo
From left: Kiichi Nakai, Takashi Sasano, Hiroyuki Nagato, Houka Kinoshita and Ittoku Kishibe in "Nezu no Ban"

But as Masahiko Makino shows us in his debut feature, "Nezu no Ban (Night Without Sleep)," the best of them, such as the elderly rakugo troupe master played by Hiroyuki Nagato, work a kind of alchemy. Instead of an individual personality, we become aware of a neighborhood populated by vividly realized (if comically brainless) characters, soaked in authentic (if highly stylized) period atmosphere.

But his members of the troupe, from the master on down, are also walking encyclopedias of smutty jokes and songs, rag on each other mercilessly and even indulge in the occasional spliff. In other words, they are less tenders of ancient cultural gardens than show-biz folk who enjoy their pleasures -- and make it their profession to please others, in ways both high and low.

Better known as actor Masahiko Tsugawa, who has appeared in more than 150 films in a five-decade career, Makino has recently taken the last name of his famous grandfather, Shozo Makino, who directed his first film in 1906 and is known today as the father of Japanese cinema. His uncle, Masahiro Makino, was a director as well, who helmed more than 200 films, including classic yakuza actioners with the female lead of "Nezus," Junko Fuji (who now uses the name Sumiko).

In fact, detailing all the movie business connections of the Makino clan would take the rest of this review. Makino's star, Nagato, is his older brother. One of his supporting actresses, Mayuko Tsugawa, is his daughter. And so it goes.

This trio, as well as the rest of the talented, mostly veteran cast know the world of their characters inside out -- and bring it to life with an assurance and rightness the makers of a Hollywood travesty like "Memoirs of a Geisha" could only dream of.

The story, however, verges on the incredible, though it deals with the universally inevitable. It begins with the wake for the aforementioned master, dead after an unspecified illness. The mourners are his deshi (disciples) and relatives, who soon dispense with the formalities and start in with the stories, lewd, rude and otherwise.

The first is of how the master, on his deathbed, whispers one last request to his oldest deshi, Kyoji (Takashi Sasano). He wants to see -- let's just say he mutters a Kansai dialect word for the female nether regions. Kyoji consults with Kyota (Kiichi Nakai), another senior deshi -- and together they decide to ask Kyota's wife, the lovely Shigeko (Yoshino Kimura), to give the old man a final perv. To their immense relief, she agrees ("After all, I'm a storyteller's wife," she shrugs, as though it's part of the job description). Arriving at the hospital, she gamely mounts the master's bed, assumes a sumo wrestler's pose and . . . the rest is farce.

Gross, you say? This, I should warn you, is only the beginning. Kyota relates a story about his first sexual encounter, which occurs on his father's fishing boat and involves something beyond gross. Then, when the deshi are thoroughly in their cups, they gather around their beloved master, laid out on the tatami, gently lift him up -- and dance with him. And not a waltz either, but a line dance, a la the Rockettes, with two deshi moving the corpse's feet in time with the music.

Makino, you might think, is having an insider's laugh at the expense of easily shocked squares. But as other members of the circle croak in quick succession -- first Kyoji, then the master's still-gorgeous wife Shizuko (Fuji), a former geisha, we realize he has more on his mind than gross-out humor. The good times end for all of us, he seems to say -- and then what?

For the deshi and those around them, the short answer is story, song and dance, which are not just defenses against the encircling darkness, but the very stuff of remembrance, life and art. For them, the low is as much a part of the whole megillah as the high -- and the dead as much as the living. As wake succeeds wake, everything mixes and merges, with the dear departed kicking up a leg or popping back from Beyond to tell a risque anecdote.

An actor who goes all out -- or overboard -- in his own roles (see his films with Juzo Itami for some better comic examples of his style), Makino lays it on thick in "Nezu" as well. But he also gives his cast, led by the versatile Nakai and irrepressible Nagato, plenty of room to stretch -- and strut their stuff. A shamisen and song duel between Nakai and comic Masaki Sakai, playing Shizuko's unsuccessful suitor in her salad days, is a brilliant display of both musical and verbal virtuosity, as the two men exchange smutty lyrics like two battling rappers, minus the hostility.

That this friendly contest unfolds next to Shizuko's lifeless (if smiling) form somehow seems right. In her old line of work, we see, she was not beyond a bit of double entendre herself, delivered with consummate grace. A good reason to stay up till dawn.

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