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Friday, May 5, 2006

'Seabiscuit' without trappings

Yuki ni Negau Koto

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Kichitaro Negishi
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 20
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Kichitaro Negishi's "Yuki ni Negau Koto (What the Snow Brings)" pulled off a Superfecta at last year's Tokyo International Film Festival, winning the fest's top prize -- the Tokyo Sakura Grand Prix -- as well as Best Director prize for Negishi, a Best Actor prize for star Koichi Sato, and the Audience Award.

News photo
Koichi Sato (left) and Yusuke Iseya in "Yuki ni Negau Koto"

As this haul indicates, Negishi's drama of brotherly strife, unfolding against the colorful backdrop of the banei style of horse racing, is aimed at the local critical and audience mainstream. Though set in modern-day Hokkaido, its story of recovery from humiliation and defeat, as well as its somberly beautiful imagery, recalls Yoji Yamada's "Tasogare Seibei (The Twilight Samurai)" from 2002, which not only swept film awards in Japan but was widely distributed abroad. Too bad Negishi's jockeys aren't universally marketable samurai.

The obvious Hollywood comparison is Gary Ross's "Seabiscuit," though this story has less glitz, if similar gritty backstage (or rather, back of the stable) drama. It also builds to a similar do-or-die race, though Negishi keeps the focus more on his two-legged than four-legged characters. This style of storytelling is squarely in the humanistic tradition of Japanese cinema and in Negishi's hands it delivers an emotional finish whose tears are at least earned, if well anticipated.

Its hero is Manabu Yazaki (Yusuke Iseya), who has lost his business and his wife in Tokyo and who has now returned home to Obihiro, Hokkaido, in the dead of winter. On the advice of an elderly punter (Tsutomu Yamazaki), he bets all his remaining cash on a banei horse race, in which enormous draft horses pull jockeys on weighted sleighs around a 200-meter track, climbing two large humps on the way. Manabu's horse, Unryu, stops dead on the middle of the second hump -- and the punter tells him the horse will soon be sashimi.

Unryu, it turns out, is being trained by Manabu's irascible older brother Takeo (Sato), who runs a stable, but is far from being rich. He bristles at Manubu's arrival -- his younger sibling had all but disowned his socially declasse family in his climb to the top in Tokyo -- but reluctantly takes him in and, when he hears about his dire financial straits, offers him a job at the stable.

His other options exhausted, Manabu accepts, but finds the work tough and his brother's temper more violent than ever. One refuge is Haruko (Kyoko Koizumi), an ever-cheerful woman who cares for the stable workers and serves as Takeo's surrogate wife, if not yet his lover. Another is Unryu, for whom Manabu has an instinctive sympathy as a fellow loser. Still another is Makie, Unryu's jockey, who is forever being compared with her famous jockey father, but who has lost the touch that once made her his worthy successor.

The plot trajectory seems obvious: Manabu will fall in love with Makie and reconcile with Takeo, while Unryu miraculously escapes the knackers. But life at the track is not so simple, especially when Manabu's former business partner shows up to remind him of the responsibilities he abandoned and the pain he caused.

Iseya is the ostensible lead as the despicable, if somehow sympathetic Manabu, but Sato is the stand-out as the fiery, essentially lonely Takeo, who is wedded to his work and rooted in the harsh Hokkaido landscape. His performance gives "Yuki" much of its tension and power; when he is off-screen it deflates to standard TV drama tropes.

Much of its beauty comes from the horses, which are twice the size of average thoroughbreds. Pulling their sleighs on morning practice runs, the steam billowing out their nostrils in huge clouds, they look like remnants from a prehistoric age of giants. Their style of racing is an odd cross between a steeplechase and a tractor pull, though their titanic exertions, as well as the strategic maneuvers of their human handlers, have a fascination beyond the usual win-or-lose calculations.

Perhaps the true audience for "Yuki ni Negau Koto" is not the art-house crowd, but the multitudes of weekend punters, who may not see many films, but will be twisting their popcorn boxes when Unryu rounds that final turn.

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