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Friday, Oct. 6, 2006
Amphibious landing in Shibuya
I used to screen "Koroshi no Rakuin (Branded to Kill)," Seijun Suzuki's madball genre sendup, for university students, both foreign and Japanese, but I finally gave up. Inevitably, one or two students would rave about Suzuki's audacity, genius or general coolness, while the others were either puzzled ("What is this movie about?") or outraged ("Why did you waste our time with this?").
Compared with Masanori Tominaga's first feature, "The Pavilion Sansho Uo," Suzuki's fever dream of paranoia and eros is almost a model of sweet reason. At least "Koroshi no Rakuin" tossed in standard genre tropes -- tough-guy gun play, interludes with a sultry femme fatale and a showdown in a boxing ring, while erasing the boundary between dream and reality in true Kafka-esque (or Suzuki-esque) style.
"Pavilion," however, is pure mind-bending, genre-mocking play, with little plot development of the usual sort. Stuff happens, as Donald Rumsfeld might say, but not much is at stake. This becomes obvious early on, even from the trailer, but instead of avoiding "Pavilion" as another piece of arty w**kery, audiences have been crowding into the Cine Quanon theater in Shibuya. I joined them last Wednesday and found myself carried along by the film's blithe, mildly nutty disregard of convention, if not completely swept away.
Widely proclaimed an indie genius for his DV shorts, Tominaga invites the audience to join his games, with a grin of goofy complicity, instead of shutting it out and playing alone with a furrowed brow.
Also, instead of simply throwing scenes at the screen and seeing which ones stick, he builds structure into his picaresque story line, beginning with the metaphor of the title creature, who may have the personality of a blob, but has been paddling gaily about in the muck for a century and a half. It's metamessage: "Don't worry, be happy."
But the salamander, we soon learn, is not as simple as it seems. It is a pawn in a family money game -- and may very well be fake. This is one mixed metaphor.
The film's human hero is Hoichi Tobishima (Joe Odagiri), a self-styled "genius" X-ray technician who rumbles about the countryside in his big X-ray van. One day, gang boss Kagawa (Ken Mitsuishi), sporting a pork-pie hat and black-rimmed glasses, comes to him with an unusual request.
He wants to marry Akino Ninomiya (Yumi Asou), whose family has managed the Salamandre Kinjiro Foundation for generations. Meanwhile, Akino wants Kagawa to buy out the foundation and pay off the debts of her feckless father, Shiro Ninomiya (Junji Takada). Her sisters, Mihari (Kiki) and Hibiko (Mayu Kitaki), object, however.
Why? They have a cozy arrangement with the government, which subsidizes the foundation for the upkeep of Kinjiro, a giant salamander who was the star of the Paris World Exposition in 1867 and is now considered a national treasure. The Ninomiyas, however, lavish most of the moola on themselves, save for poor Shiro, who has been pushed off the gravy train.
The family manse exudes an air of Meiji-Era luxury and privilege, while the daughters who inhabit it, particularly the vampish Mihari, are both spoiled and unstuck in time, living in a perpetual Meiji twilight.
Shiro, though, still has Kinjiro's best interests at heart. Hearing that the beast might be endangered by unnamed "bad people," he asks his youngest daughter, Azuki (Yu Kashii) to help him rescue it from the foundation's clutches.
In return, he promises to reunite her with her mother, who did a disappearing act when she was small girl.
There is a problem, however: Kinjiro is rumored be a mechanical fake. Kagawa wants Hoichi to X-ray it to see if it shows signs of repair for a bone it broke at the Expo. Evidently, the quick-and-dirty test -- shaking it to see if it rattles, isn't good enough.
This sounds like a setup for a wacky caper comedy from an another era -- imagine Peter Sellers in the role of Hoichi -- but Tominaga takes a slower paced, more overtly surreal approach, a la Luis Bunuel or Kiyoshi Kurosawa. (The salamander recalls the jellyfish featured in Kurosawa's "Akarui Mirai," in which Odagiri also starred).
For all the busyness of the plot, the action unfolds at a shambling pace, like that of the blobby, barely animate Kinjiro itself.
At the same time, "Pavilion" holds audience attention with everything from glamour shots of the female stars, who look as though they are posing for upscale fashion spreads, to bizarre plot twists. The prize goes to the interlude in Hoichi's home village of Fuegomura, an outpost of Sicilian culture (don't ask why) in the foothills of Shizuoka. There, Hoichi meets characters straight out of "The Godfather Part II," grows a mustache and converses with the natives in a dialect that is Shizuoka-ben mixed with a sort of pig Latin. His manner also becomes flamboyantly "Italian," but more Johnny Depp than Al Pacino.
The rock in the midst of this swirling madness is Azuki, who, with her basilisk stare and striking, heavy-faced beauty, looks less like the high-school kid she is supposedly playing and more like the priestess of an ancient cult, unfazed by Hoichi's antics (though I'd like to see the outtakes of her cracking up). What does she stand for in Tominaga's scheme of things? She, like the salamander, isn't saying, in so many words at least.
I have my own ideas, but the best way to enjoy the film is not to intellectualize it, but float through it -- cracked Fuego dialect and all. Unless, like one of my Suzuki-hating, logic-loving former students, your head explodes first.