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Friday, June 30, 2006
Campaign of hate
Japan can be a pretty harmonious place, unless you're out of tune by appearance, personality or the model of cell phone you bring to school. Then you start to learn the meaning of the large Japanese vocabulary for exclusion, including ijime (usually translated as "bullying") and murahachibu (social ostracism -- literally, "cast out of the village"). Foreigners often encounter at least mild forms of this -- the seat beside you that stays empty on a crowded train, the neighbor who never returns your greeting -- but it is Japanese themselves who usually bear the full brunt, as Japanese filmmakers have noted again and again.
They often portray schools, especially, as snake pits of merciless bullying, including viciously creative varieties that could give CIA interrogators pointers. Exaggeration for dramatic effect? Certainly, but in most of these films, the perpetrators are finally brought up short. Lives may be shattered or lost, but justice prevails.
Masahiro Kobayashi offers no such assurance in "Bashing," a sparely told, emotionally walloping film suggested by the real-life experiences of a Japanese woman who was on a self-styled volunteer mission in Iraq when she was captured by insurgents, held hostage and finally released unharmed. Back home, she was widely criticized by the media and public for going to Iraq in the first place, as well as for causing trouble for her rescuers and embarrassment for the nation.
Screened in competition at the Cannes Film Festival last year, "Bashing" represents a breakthrough for Kobayashi, who also won invitations to Cannes for "Kaizokuban -- Bootleg Film (Bootleg Film)" in 1998, "Koroshi (Film Noir)" in 2002, and "Aruku, Hito (Man Walking on Snow)" in 2001. A veteran scriptwriter with nearly 500 TV credits, Kobayashi has had a harder time establishing himself as a major director here than in France. Critics were not always kind to his -- at times -- labored attempts to channel his beloved French auteurs, while audiences mostly stayed away. "Bashing," however, has enjoyed what, for a Kobayashi film, is a flood of media attention, and is still drawing crowds a month after its opening at Image Forum in Shibuya.
It deserves this attention not so much for the originality of its stripped-down aesthetic -- Kobayashi is once again channeling, this time the Dardennes brothers ("L'Enfant," "Rosetta") -- as its unsparing look at what might be called the Japanese way of ostracism, carried to its ultimate extreme.
His heroine, Yuko (Fusako Urabe), is first seen after she has returned from her ordeal to her home in a bleak industrial town on the coast somewhere in Hokkaido. When she arrives for work as a hotel maid, none of her colleagues acknowledge her greeting and she works her shift in total silence. Then her boss (Teruyuki Kagawa) tells her she's been fired. She's "disturbing the atmosphere of the workplace," he says.
Her real crime, we see as the story progresses and more people around her make themselves brutally clear, is that, by being in the wrong place at the wrong time for the wrong reason (i.e. trying to help distant foreigners), she brought shame on herself, her family and her community. Every encounter -- with a trio of bullies who surround her in a convenience store parking lot, with a former boyfriend who demands a meeting, with married acquaintances she encounters on the street -- drives home her utter isolation, the utter lack of anything resembling sympathy for her ordeal or recognition of her simple humanity.
It is not enough for her tormentors to abuse her physically and mentally; they must assert their moral superiority to this arrogant woman, who either ignored or never learned the first rules of living in what is still a village society: Go along to get along and never stand out from the crowd.
She finds no refuge at home, where harassing e-mails and phone calls follow her and her factory worker father (Ryuzo Tanaka) and part-timer mother resent her. They are, according to the laws of society, guilty as charged for raising such a thoughtless, irresponsible daughter. Their punishment is also severe, and Yuko's father is less able to withstand it. His reaction -- let's leave it vague -- precipitates Yuko's final decision: Should she stay and fight it out, surrender to despair or return to the only place where she ever felt truly human?
Fusako Urabe, who also appeared in Kobayashi's "Aruku, Hito" and "Flic" plays Yuko with a clenched, headlong intensity. She pumps her gaily colored mountain bike through the gray streets as though battling through a fog of hatred and contempt. At the same time, Urabe exposes the bleeding wounds beneath the defiant, closed-off exterior. Her look of fierce bitterness and resentment, after hearing a cutting remark or the latest bad news, has a raw, unmediated quality that is rare. Far more actresses would opt for a sympathy-grabbing sob over her nakedly revealing scowl.
"Bashing" is the sort of grim, unrelenting film that the entire Japanese industry is trying strenuously not to make. What the public wants, nearly everyone says now, is tear-wrenching, heartwarming drama, preferably with a touch of fantasy or a sprinkling of CG fairy dust, which makes "Bashing" so refreshing: It shames the devil and tells the truth.