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Thursday, Nov. 2, 2006


Some 'eyes' keen, some crossed

Special to The Japan Times

Jury duty at the Tokyo Film Festival has its perks, including a badge that gets the lucky juror into any screening. At the TIFF, where tickets to popular films sell out in a finger-snap. this is like being Harry Potter, wand in hand, in Muggle land.

Tokyo International Film Festival The Cats of Mirikitani
Japanese Eyes Grand Prize winner "The Cats of Mirikitani" (above); and "M" LUCID DREAMING INC (above)/ZAC CORP
Tokyo International Film Festival M

But as a juror for the TIFF's Japanese Eyes section and a reporter for Variety, I had little time for free-form magic. And wand or no wand, magic was scarce on the screen as well.

The best film by far in the section was "The Cats of Mirikitani," a documentary by American director Linda Hattendorf that we awarded the Japanese Eyes Grand Prize.

What was this film doing in the Japanese Eyes section? It had a Japanese producer and Japanese Foundation money behind it and is about a Japanese-American artist, making it an honorary Japanese film -- at least that is how it was explained to me.

Be that as it may, "Cats" is an extraordinary piece of work. Hattendorf met her subject, Tsutomu "Jimmy" Mirikitani, in 2001, when he was seemingly just another old homeless guy, sheltering from the New York winter at a Korean restaurant near her apartment. But Mirikitani was also a self-proclaimed "master artist," drawing ceaselessly with markers, pencils and anything that came to hand -- with cats a favorite subject.

Hattendorf took Mirikitani into her apartment and began to extract the story of his life, not easy given his limited English and reluctance to open certain doors of memory long closed (or rusted shut).

One of his obsessions was the 3 1/2-years he spent in detention camps in the United States during World War II. His drawings and recollections of camp life were full of vivid detail -- informed by an anger at injustice that the years had only intensified. His rejection of anything to do with the government, including his never-collected social security payments, came from that anger.

But as his friendship with Hattendorf deepens, Mirikitani also reveals a gentler side, as well as flowering as an artist and a man. Meanwhile, she helps him regain his pride and his past, including a long-lost sister out West. He begins living on his own, takes part in a memorial service at the Tule Lake Camp and has an emotional reunion with the sister.

All this makes for a moving story that left not a dry eye in the TIFF screening I attended, but there is nothing false or forced in Hattendorf's telling of it. Instead, it emerges naturally from Mirikitani's own character and his now five-year relationship with Hattendorf. Meanwhile, Hattendorf manages the difficult trick of being an actor and observer, while keeping the focus squarely and skillfully on her subject. In other words, she is the anti-Michael Moore.

We gave our Special Prize to Kengo Kora, a star of Ryuichi Hiroki's drama "M." The film itself is a muddled affair, but Kora's performance is a standout -- exuding erotic danger, while inviting sympathy. The central character, a willowy, sexually frustrated housewife (Miwon) is a passive, masochistic type (thus the "M" of the title), who falls under the spell of a violence-prone gangster (Tomorowo Taguchi). Kora's character, a newspaper delivery boy, enters her life innocently enough, in a game of catch with her young son, but is revealed as a reform-school alumni, sent up for murdering his abusive father to protect his victimized mother. He quickly senses the erotic hell that the housewife is descending into and elects himself as her savior.

The ensuing drama of crossed wills and conflicting motives lacks the power and clarity of Hiroki's best work, especially his 2003 masterpiece "Vibrator," but Kora remains a compelling, disturbing presence amid the erotic murk.

The other films we judged were a mixed bag in terms of theme and genre, while quality ranged from from the brilliantly loopy (Shinji Aoyama's "Korogi [Cricket]") to the self-indulgently awful (Takushi Tsubokawa's "Utsukushiki Tennen [Clouds of Yesterday]"). (Here I ought to mention that Kazuki Omori's opening film "Kanashiki Tenshi (Those Were the Days)," and Eiji Okuda's "Nagai Sampo (a long walk)," were not included in the competition.) The Japanese eyes behind the dodgier entries ought to look to Ms. Hattendorf, who may not have the right color passport, but has the right ideas about character, story -- and drawing on the best of the Japanese spirit.

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