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Friday, Sept. 1, 2006

Miike's 'film' takes an arty route

Now in his mid-40s, with more than 60 films to his credit, Takashi Miike is no longer the punk provocateur of old, committing on-screen outrages with a black-comic wink. This is disappointing to fans of Asian extreme cinema who want their mad, bad Miike back. But Miike himself is moving on.

46-oku-nen no Koi Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Ryuhei Matsuda (sitting) and Masanobu Ando in "46-oku-nen no Koi" (c)2006 "46 OKU-NEN NO KOI" PARTNERS

Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 84 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Sept. 1, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

One turning point was "Chakushin Ari (One Missed Call)" in 2004, a horror film that became his first mainstream commercial hit. Another was "Gokudo Kyofu Daigekijo Gozu" in 2003, a straight-to-DVD yakuza flick that was screened in the Directors' Fortnight section of the Cannes Film Festival. These milestones gave Miike a boost in industry status while allowing him to break out in new directions.

One of those directions was "Izo," a 2004 film about a time-traveling samurai on a mission of vengeance that shattered not only genre conventions, but the time-space continuum. While as violent as anything in Miike's oeuvre (which means as violent as anything in the history of film, period), "Izo" was also an investigation of the meaning of life and the universe that was willfully enigmatic and obscure. His foreign fan base mostly hated it.

Miike's latest, "46-oku-nen no Koi (Big Bang Love Juvenile A)," a homoerotic prison drama, may alienate them even more (or send them back to their "Koroshiya Ichi" DVDs. Screened in the Panorama section of this year's Berlin Film Festival, "46-oku-nen" has called forth comparisons to Godard, Von Trier, Lynch and other auteurs, which is largely deserved. In other words, Miike has committed that fan-boy sacrilege -- an art film.

Or has he? Miike, as he once told this reviewer, sees himself as making one long film -- and this one has affinities with those that came before, including the high violence quotient.

But it also differs from much of his previous work (especially his recent commercial outings) in its theatrically stylized sets, complex narrative strategies and basic tone. The familiar wink is gone, replaced by a serious engagement with the mysteries of love and lust, rage and revenge, hope and despair, set in Miike's most fully realized dreamscape.

Most directors, Miike commented in his 2003 autobiography, become as rigid as pachinko balls. "If they miss (with a film), they fall down a hole and that's the end of them," he wrote. Miike is determined to be more like the CGI butterfly that flutters symbolically around his gay hero Jun -- a creature of, not habit, but metamorphosis.

Scripted by frequent Miike collaborator Masa Nakamura, "46-oku-nen" begins with stark shots of a young boy and an elderly mentor watching a muscular male dancer, clad only in a red loincloth, whipping through a strenuous martial-arts dance routine with an ambiguous vibe. Is it an invitation to manhood, or homoerotic delights?

The boy, Shiro (Masanobu Ando), grows up to become a violent criminal. Sent to a reformatory, he enforces his will with his fists against all comers. He also becomes the protector of Jun (Ryuhei Matsuda), a delicately handsome, smoky-eyed boy who worked in a gay bar and viciously murdered one of his clients.

One day Jun is discovered sitting astraddle the prone body of Shiro -- gripping the cord that has strangled him to death. Led away by the guards, Jun proclaims his guilt.

An open and shut case? Not to the two detectives (Renji Ishibashi and Kenichi Endo) assigned to it. What possible motive would Jun have for killing the one person standing between him and a ravening horde of rapists and thugs? The more they investigate, the deeper the detectives plunge into mystery.

Two radically different types, the boys were nonetheless more than cellmates -- but what exactly? The slack-jawed Yukimura (Yosuke Kubozuka), who gives himself to the violent, borderline Tsuchiya (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) as a survival tactic (while proclaiming his straightness), tells the cops that Jun probably did the same with Shiro, but supplies no motive for the murder. Jun and Shiro's cellmates offer their observations and theories (or rather wild guesses), but somehow the case doesn't add up. Then the cops question the warden (Ryo Ishibashi), he of the silken manner and weird grin, who has his own reasons for wanting Shiro dead.

Through a series of flashbacks, the mystery is finally revealed, but the film's whodunnit plot is less important than the love story at its heart. Miike tells this story through, not the confessions and idylls of a "Brokeback Mountain," but suggestive words, acts and symbols, including a rocket-launch site and Mayan pyramid near the prison whose significance is never fully explained. (Though to Jun and Shiro, the former leads to outer space, the latter, to heaven.)

For Shiro, abused as a child, violence is a way of, not just surviving in a brutal world, but clearing physic space, cutting to the existential quick. He is not a bully or a brute but a wounded poet, whose fists are his vocabulary, grammar, punctuation. Jun calls out to him, not just as a sexual object, but a kindred spirit, a yin to his yang -- and equally soaked in blood.

As Jun and Shiro, Ryuhei Matsuda and Masanobu Ando are a well-matched pair, though Matsuda plays too close to what is becoming his type: the cold, seductive, enigmatic object of gay desire. Miike favorite Ryo Ishibashi, though, stands out as the embodiment of sweet reason -- and psychotic rage, and all tightly wound in one madly grinning package. He is a reminder that, whatever arty forms his vision takes, Miike is still Miike. It's all one long movie, after all.

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