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Friday, May 19, 2006

Revenge of the nerds: Brothers gonna work it out

Mamiya Kyodai

Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Yoshimitsu Morita
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

"Mamiya Kyodai (The Mamiya Brothers)" is part of the same cultural trend that gave us "Denshaotoko (Train Man)," Shosuke Murakami's 2005 hit film about an otaku's bumbling pursuit of love. The two title heroes are also members of what might be called Otaku Nation -- the growing tribe of nerdy guys more adept at their various hobbies and games than human relationships.

News photo
Kuranosuke Sasaki (far left) and Muga Tsukaji (far right) in "Mamiya Kyodai" (C) 2006 'MAMIYA KYODAI' SEISAKU IINKAI

Why this tribe has become so large and influential is a subject for another essay. But otaku, as evidenced by the success of "Denshaotoko" as well as "Mamiya Kyodai" 's wide release, are now squarely in the box-office mainstream.

A generation or two ago, local screens were full of comedies about salarymen who, however incompetently, were at least mixing it up in the real world, sexually and otherwise. Today, the comic heroes are more likely to be, like the Mamiyas, otaku who live in boyish fantasy realms -- Peter Pans forever.

At the same time, "Mamiya Kyodai" is in a venerable cinematic line that goes back to Laurel and Hardy, down to the physiques of the two principals: the tall, lanky Kuranosuke Sasaki as Akinobu Mamiya, and the short, pudgy Muga Tsukaji as younger brother Tetsunobu.

Director Yoshimitsu Morita is less interested in making old-fashioned slapstick or trendy social commentary, however, than in giving his stressed audience a vision of a more humane, less frantic world, in which even developmentally arrested shy guys can thrive.

Those looking for the dry, black comedy of Morita's 1983 "Kazoku Game (Family Game)" will come away disappointed. "Mamiya Kyodai" has its share of laughs, but they're warm chuckles, rather than raucous cackles. It also offers little in the way of narrative tension, even of the cliched "a laugh and a tear" variety. Instead, the brothers exist in a kind of eternity, like characters in a theme park attraction, which is part of their appeal.

As the story begins, they are living together in a spacious apartment in downtown Tokyo and working 9-to-5 jobs. In other words, they have evolved beyond the part-timer/student lifestyle of the typical post-adolescent otaku into something resembling adulthood. Adulthood, however, as imagined by a hobby-mad, work-allergic boy.

Akinobu is a taster in a beer-bottling plant, Tetsunobu a handyman at an elementary school. Their apartment is a crowded, but immaculately maintained shrine to their various interests, from comics and crossword puzzles to paper airplanes. In the evening they sit, side by side, to watch Yokohama Baystars games, ball caps on their heads and clipboards in hand. Or they watch rented DVDs, with tubs of popcorn on their laps and expressions of rapture on their faces. After these and other amusements, they retire to their futons to sleep like babes until the next busy day. What a paradise -- if you happen to be 12 years old.

Akinobu and Tetsunobu, however, are both past 30, with a normal, if frustrated, interest in the opposite sex. Thus Tetsunobu's proposal that they hold a "curry party" for two women of their acquaintance: Kuzuhara sensei (Takako Tokiwa), an attractive, if gawky, teacher at Tetsunobu's school, and Naomi-chan (Erika Sawajiri), an excruciatingly cute clerk at the video shop the boys patronize -- and whom Akinobu is head over heels for.

Amazingly, both say yes, and even more amazingly, the party is a huge success. Their guests like not only their curry (thoughtfully, the brothers prepare three varieties), but the game of Monopoly they play after dinner. What a refreshing change from the usual digital whatever! The brothers begin to dream impossible dreams. That is, the serpent of desire enters their presexual Eden.

But not so suddenly -- or fatally. First, the brothers visit their mother (singer Miyuki Nakajima) and grandparents in the Shizuoka countryside. This involves a trip on another of their obsessions -- the shinkansen -- and indulgence in their favorite beverages: beer for Akinobu, kohi gyunyu (coffee-flavored milk) for Tetsunobu. Mom turns out to be an eccentric free spirit who heartily approves of their lifestyle choices, including their brideless condition. In other words, the apples don't fall far from the bent maternal tree.

Back in Tokyo, however, complications await. Akinobu's senior at the bottling plant is scheming to divorce his saintly wife and marry his sharp-tongued mistress -- and recruits Akinobu as a reluctant ally. Then Tetsunobu is sweet-talked into a sleazy club -- and is bilked out of 100,000 yen.

Meanwhile, Kuzuhara sensei is being ardently wooed by a male teacher, while Naomi remains doggedly loyal to an indifferent baseball-player boyfriend, despite the disapproval of her wacky-but-cute sister (Keiko Kitagawa). In other words, the brothers seem likely to lose, not only paradise, but their respective Eves.

Based on a novel by Kaori Ekuni, Morita's script works these and other story threads into the semblance of a plot. The outcome, however, is seldom in doubt. Morita is a benevolent god to his cinematic creations, and his audience, otaku or not, would not have it any other way. In a society where adult life is too often a slog through a workaholic purgatory, the Mamiya's Eden looks awfully tempting. Who needs sex when you've got hotels on Park Place?

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