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Friday, Oct. 20, 2006

The girls stand out

When the producers of "Memoirs of a Geisha" said they didn't cast Japanese actresses in major roles because they couldn't find any good enough, I concluded that they were either ignorant or devious, or perhaps both, since they obviously wanted to use Asian actresses with U.S. name recognition, rather than their relatively unknown Japanese counterparts.

Machiaishitsu Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Sumiko Fuji in "Machiaishitsu" (c)2006 "MACHIAISHITSU" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Makoto Itakura
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Nov. 4, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Two Japanese actresses who top my own "good enough for a mediocre Hollywood movie" list are Sumiko Fuji -- known in her Toei yakuza movie heyday as Junko Fuji -- and her daughter, Shinobu Terajima.

Playing the title character of the "Hibotan Bakuto (Red Peony Gambler)" series -- a female gambler who wanders the country righting wrongs with her short, swift sword, Fuji was a picture of kimonoed elegance and power -- silk and steel. She was a top star in a male-dominated genre when she retired in 1972 to marry kabuki actor Onoue Kikugoro. Now, she is starring in two films currently on release: "Hula Girls" and "Machiaishitsu (Notebook of Life)." She no longer swings a sword, but is still an icon.

By contrast, Terajima is an actress first, a star (a too-distant) second. After an award-winning stage career, she broke spectacularly into films in 2003 with "Vibrator" and "Akame Shijuya Taki Shinju Misui (Akame 48 Falls)," sweeping domestic acting prizes. Playing an alcoholic, bulimic writer who finds sexual and personal redemption on the road in "Vibrator," she gave a bravura performance -- nakedly revealing, delicately nuanced, without a hint of staginess or strain.

In every role since, no matter how small, she has brought something, be it a fineness of detail or a moment of raw emotion, that makes her a standout. Terajima never does anything that's quite like what she's done before, though she puts something of herself in everything she does.

That is also true of her performance in "Machiaishitsu (Notebook of Life)," veteran scriptwriter Makoto Itakura's feature debut. Set in Kotsunagi, Iwate Prefecture, the film tells the true story of notebooks left in the Kotsunagi Station waiting room that more than a thousand travelers have written in over the years. Terajima plays the younger version, and Fuji the older, of Kazuyo, a liquor store proprietor who cares for the notebooks -- and writes her own replies to the more heartfelt entries, even though she will never meet many of the writers.

The two are never on screen together, which is just as well, since they are different types -- Fuji is still the queen of the lot, despite her folksy Iwate accent and sympathy-grabbing limp, while Terajima, as always, disappears into the role. Nonetheless they share enough DNA, actorly and otherwise, to make the transitions credible, if not seamless.

"Machiaishitsu" is an uplifting, heartwarming melodrama, filmed with an unblinking earnestness that may seem odd given the credits of those involved (Itakura is a specialist in down-and-dirty yakuza pics), but it belongs to a well-established local genre. Not intended for export, or Japanese under 40 for that matter, 'Machiaishitsu" and films like it are the cinematic equivalent of enka ballads: corny and old-fashioned, yes, but delivering a straight emotional punch.

The story begins in the dead of winter, with a half-frozen man stumbling into the waiting room. He reads what Kazuyo has written in a notebook -- that one has to live with all one's strength, for something good will surely come -- and feels inspired. Then he is fed and comforted by Kazuyo herself -- and goes away revived. He is, she later learns from his own entry, on a journey north after losing his wife and daughter in a traffic accident. He was looking for an end to his meaningless existence but has found a reason to go on.

More skeptical is Akiko (Mayuko Tate), a rebellious, troubled teen who can't believe Kazuyo's fine words about the dawn coming after the dark, and says so in a notebook.

Is Kazuyo just repeating cheer-up bromides, or does she know whereof she speaks: The answer comes in a flashback, when a young Kazuyo (Terajima) was the wife of Shiro (Dancan), a hardworking liquor store owner, and the mother of cute 6-year-old Kazue. They are the picture of happiness, until tragedy strikes twice and Kazuyo is left alone.

Taking over the liquor store, she overcomes her loss and becomes a community fixture, as well as a source of strength to friends and strangers alike. Her notebook entries also radiate that strength, even as far as a young journalist from Tokyo (Miwako Ichikawa) who comes to interview her. But Kazuyo has her human limits, ones that are severely tested when her precious notebooks go missing.

Filming with a Viper FilmStream HD camera -- the same one Michael Mann used to shoot "Collateral," Itakura and cinematographer Osame Maruike capture the harsh beauty of Iwate in winter with an unfussy professionalism that perfectly matches the story.

Flashy camera tricks and fashionable despair would both be out of place in Kazuyo's world. It's harder, though, to justify the ever-so-ripe performances, even by Terajima, who bustles and enthuses as though she were making a CM for a pep tonic. Then her character discovers that her child is missing and Terajima becomes magnificent as the desperate mother, plunging through a freezing stream as though a life depended on it.

A better director -- a Zhang Yimou or Jun Ichikawa -- might have focused more on the Kazuyo born in that moment, less on the secular saint Itakura insists she became. Itakura, however, is the one who thought to write this particular entry in the notebook of cinema, with the incomparable Fuji and Terajima as his pens. A corny way of putting it, but true.

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