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Friday, Aug. 18, 2006

Down, but not quite out

Film directors are often "in production" to the last, even when they're breathing on a respirator (John Huston) or recovering from a stroke (Nagisa Oshima). There's something valiant about this, even if the late films are a falling off from the best work.

Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Shunsuke Matsuoka, Tomoyo Harada and Masatoshi Nagase in "Kamiya Etsukono Seishun"

Director: Kazuo Kuroki
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Aug. 18, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Sometimes, though, they are a precious final statement about saying farewell to the passion of your life.

Kazuo Kuroki, who died of a stroke at age 75 last April, summed up an era for his entire generation in his last four films, starting with "Tomorrow" (1988), about the Nagasaki atomic bombing, and concluding with "Kamiya E-tsuko no Seishun (The Youth of Etsuko Kamiya)," which became a posthumous film -- and a fitting coda to Kuroki's four-decade career.

All four films are either set in or refer to the war's chaotic closing days. "Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun," however, differs from the other three in that it's based on a play by Masataka Matsuda. Also, though it starts with a borderline-sentimental framing device -- an elderly couple on a hospital rooftop, viewing one of their last sunsets together -- it's overall tone is surprisingly comic, in the folksy manner of Yoji Yamada's "Tora-san" series.

Comparisons are likewise possible with Yamada's Shochiku senpai, Yasujiro Ozu -- both Ozu and Kuroki extract major truths from seemingly minor acts and words, more by well-timed suggestion than blatant underlining (though the sunset is about as blatant a metaphor as it gets).

Ishii Teruo Fan Club Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Ishii Teruo (center) in a still from "Ishii Teruo Fan Club"

Director: Masaaki Yaguchi
Running time: 80 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Aug. 18, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But "Kamiya Etsuko" is also austere -- hardly any music, mostly long takes and only straight cuts -- in a way identifiably Kuroki. It is as though, knowing the end was approaching, he concentrated his remaining energies to make a strong-but-simple drama, with maximum efficiency and minimum distractions.

The film begins with the eternally patient title character (Tomoyo Harada) and her cranky, but ever-loving husband (Masatoshi Nagase) having a conversation about the weather, the landscape and the war that is as comically banal and repetitive and signifying as "Waiting for Godot."

Then the scene shifts to a house in rural Kumamoto in the last spring of the war. Etsuko is living with her sweet-tempered older brother (Kaoru Kobayashi) and his testy beauty of a wife (Manami Honjou). Once again the conversation verges on a comic routine in its short seesaw rhythms, punctuated by gag lines.

The situation: Her brother wants her to have an informal omiai (meeting with an eye to marriage) with an air force officer, Nagayo (Nagase), who is a comrade of an old school friend, Akashi (Shunsuke Matsuoka). Etsuko is willing -- though she also has unstated feelings for Akashi.

Then the brother is called away to Kumamoto on urgent business. His wife decides to go with him, and Etsuko is left alone to deal with her two military visitors. Nagayo, a straight-as-an-arrow innocent, earnestly bumbles his way into her heart. In the ordinary course of events, she would have to choose between these two suitors -- one self-effacing and one not, but Akashi volunteers for the tokkotai (suicide squad) -- and everything changes.

Kuroki evokes the poignancy and bitterness of this situation, while never losing sight of his principals' ordinary humanity. He also gets nuances that a younger director might miss, such as the undercurrent of wartime anxiety that runs beneath the banter. I had to wonder, though, at his casting choices -- Nagase and Harada are both two decades too old to be playing fresh-faced youths. On stage, this wouldn't matter, but the camera's eye is merciless -- and Kuroki refuses to filter it.

* * * * *

Masaaki Yaguchi's documentary "Ishii Te-ruo Fan Club," now playing at Uplink X in Shibuya, is an elegy of a different kind. His subject is Ishii Teruo, the "king of cult," whose eroguro ("erotic and grotesque") films of the 1960s and 1970s were once considered trash exploitation, but are now rightfully hailed as works of an original, brilliantly warped, talent.

His masterpiece from this period, "Kyofu Kikei Ningen (Horror of Malformed Men)" (1969), based on stories by Edogawa Rampo and starring butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata as the deranged leader of deformed outcasts living on a remote island has never been released on video or DVD, supposedly for its un-PC language and content, but when it screened at the Udine Film Festival in 2003 the audience gave it and its director a thunderous standing ovation for its inventiveness, audacity and sheer lunacy.

Yaguchi's camera followed Ishii on the production of his last feature, the minor eroguro gem "Moju tai Issunboshi (Blind Beast vs. Killer Dwarf)" (2003), capturing Ishii's puckish sense of humor, inexhaustible energy and uncanny ability to create his distinctive world in the chaotic conditions of a low-budget shoot.

One moment he is joking with his crew of mostly young film students, and next he is totally focused on the work at hand, be it demonstrating a bit of business to his bemused actors or staring through the viewfinder of his digital camera, alert to the slightest deviation from his vision (which he never recorded on story boards -- a practice he detested -- but instead drew from his fertile imagination and immediate surroundings).

I had the privilege of knowing Ishii before his death last year at 81 of lung cancer. I also appear in the film, in segments shot at the 2003 Udine Far East Film Festival -- a fact I didn't know until I walked into the theater. But don't let that discourage you from seeing this master in action. His love of filmmaking and unflagging professionalism was an inspiration and delight. "It was over too soon," Ishii tells the camera after the film wraps. I say the same about him.

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