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Friday, July 14, 2006

Moving to and fro, but going nowhere

The Cannes film festival invited only one feature from Japan this year: Miwa Nishikawa's psychological drama "Yureru (Sway)," which screened in the Directors' Fortnight section. This was disappointing, but not unexpected.

Yureru Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
News photo
Teruyuki Kagawa (left) and Joe Odagiri in "Yureru" (C) 2006 "YURERU" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Miwa Nishikawa
Running time: 119 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (July 15, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

For all its flirtations with the pop/genre end of the spectrum, Cannes remains a stronghold of auteur cinema. The Japanese film industry, meanwhile, is producing fewer true auteurs and more young directors plucked from the television industry who just want to entertain.

Nishikawa, who debuted in 2002 with the black comedy "Hebi Ichigo (Wild Berries)" and has since directed an award-winning docu-drama for NHK and segments for the omnibuses "female" (2005) and "Yume Juya (Ten Nights of Dreams)" (2006), has resisted this trend. Instead of making commercial films developed from popular manga and TV dramas, as is now all-too-common for many under-40 directors, Nishikawa has written and directed her own scripts. Her producer and mentor is not a network hack but director Hirokazu Kore-eda, for whom she first worked as a freelance staffer on his film "Wonderful Life."

"Yureru" shares one of Koreeda's principle themes -- the centrality of memory to human relationships and identity. The film, however, is anything but a Koreeda clone. It begins as a sensitively observed drama of family and fraternal strife, but in the second act the action shifts to a courtroom, with conflicting testimonies that recall Akira Kurosawa's "Rashomon."

Nishikawa uses her trial as a stage on which two brothers -- one a defendant being tried for manslaughter, the other the only witness to the alleged crime -- act out their personal psychodrama of envy, rage and love. The case is as simple and deep as a fable, with the line between truth and untruth shifting and indeterminant.

Instead of a setting in the distant, mythical past ("Rashomon") or the realm of metaphor and nightmare (such as Kafka's "The Trial"), however, Nishikawa opts for a present-day setting and conventional realism, like hundreds of TV and film courtroom dramas. In doing so, she introduces genre expectations that don't really belong and which distract from her dramatic arc.

The brothers are the younger Takeru (Joe Odagiri), a photographer based in Tokyo, and the older Minoru (Teruyuki Kagawa), a pump jockey at his father's gas station in the countryside. Though close as boys, the two siblings are now like night and day: Takeru is handsome, stylish and successful in his work and love life; the quiet, serious, suicidally depressed Minoru is none of the above.

When Takeru returns home, reluctantly and late, for a ceremony commemorating the first anniversary of his mother's death, he has sharp words with his irascible father, Isamu (Masato Ibu), while Minoru tries to smooth things over. Takeru later meets Chieko (Yoko Maki), an old flame who works at the gas station, and spends a passionate night with her at her apartment.

The next day, Minoru, Takeru and Chieko go to a river where they once played as children. Takeru crosses a shaky pedestrian bridge high over the rushing waters below and heads upstream to take pictures. Minoru and Chieko follow. Midway across, Chieko somehow falls to her death.

How could such a tragedy occur? We see Chieko tell Minoru she wants to go to Tokyo and start a new life with Takeru. We see Minoru's shocked reaction -- he has feelings for Chieko himself -- and their consequent struggle on the bridge, but we do not see if, in his disappointment and anger, Minoru pushes her off.

The police call Chieko's death an accident, but soon after Minoru cracks -- and confesses his guilt. Isamu hires a lawyer -- his brother Osamu (Keizo Kanie) -- and the case goes to trial. On the stand, Minoru recants his confession: When Chieko fell on the bridge, he says, he tried to help her up, but she slipped off. Will Takeru, the only witness, back him up?

If this were "The Sopranos," with Tony Soprano on the stand, family loyalty would trump all, including dead girlfriends. But Takeru hems and haws, as his memory of the incident on the bridge keeps shifting.

Here is where my fine legal mind, honed by all the above-mentioned TV shows and films, began raising objections. There is zero circumstantial evidence, a lone witness who keeps changing his story and a mentally disturbed defendant with no clearly substantiated motive. Does that not, your honor, indicate a reasonable doubt?

Here is also where my sympathy for Takeru began to evaporate. Given that he doesn't really know what he saw, the honorable course is to admit that, instead of grasping for an elusive (and emotionally colored) "truth." Why doesn't he? Takeru has his reasons, but they are self-serving.

Joe Odagiri and Teruyuki Kagawa both have their strengths, but they are not complementary. Odagiri is a movie star -- all smoldering charisma, playing variations of himself in film after film. Kagawa is an actor's actor, who disappears into each part. On the screen together, they are oil and water in not only their characters but their approaches to their roles, sharing hardly a strand of actorly DNA.

Their casting exemplifies the disjointed nature of the entire enterprise: Brilliant in its parts, "Yureru" is built with structural flaws. The title, at least, was well chosen.

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