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Friday, Nov. 24, 2006

Banking on sequels

Sequels, movie industry math once went, gross less than the originals as a rule -- in a spiral of diminishing returns. Recent Japanese film franchises, however, have upended that math. The thriller "Umizaru" scored 1.74 billion yen in 2004, its 2006 sequel, "Umizaru 2 -- Limit of Love (Umizaru 2 -- Test of Trust)," 7.1 billion yen. The two Japanese films reviewed this week, "Death Note: The Last Name" and "Kisarazu Cats Eye: World Series (Kisarazu Cats Eye: Sayonara Game)," are both on track to far surpass the substantial box office of their predecessors, "Death Note" (2.8 billion yen) and "Kisarazu Cats Eye: Nihon Series" (1.5 billion yen).

Death Note: The Last Name Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Death Note: The Last Name
Kenichi Matsuyama, Tatsuya Fujiwara and Erika Toda in "Death Note: The Last Name" (C) 2006 "DEATH NOTE" FILM PARTNER

Director: Shusuke Kaneko
Running time: 140 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Nov. 24, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

One reason for the sequel fever is that for the teens who are these films' main targets, movie-going is like clubbing. Just as a hot club soon becomes hotter through word of mouth -- and the eternal teenage desire to be where the party is -- popular film franchises become must-see events.

Based on Takeshi Obata's popular manga series, "Death Note: The Last Name" is less a sequel than the second of a two-fer. In the first film, Raito (Japanese pronunciation of "Light") Yagami (Tatsuya Fujiwara), a student at an elite college, finds a mysterious notebook that allows the user to kill anyone just by writing the victim's name in its pages, with heart attack being the default method of death.

Certain rules are involved, however, explained in the notebook in Japanese and slightly fractured English. One is that only the notebook's user can see its true owner: a tall, CG-generated, glam-rocker-looking shinigami ("god of death") named Ryuuk (voiced by Shido Nakamura).

Raito begins by righteously eliminating the criminal element, but ends up going over to the dark side, rubbing out (or rather, writing out) anyone who gets in his way. The police assemble a task force, headed by Raito's dad (Takeshi Kaga), to catch the killer, but they only make progress when they call in a reclusive, sweets-loving genius detective known only as L (Kenichi Matsuyama).

As the second film begins, Raito is still madly bent on ridding the world of its "impure" elements, while transforming in the public imagination from an unknown threat into a godlike figure known as "Kira" (i.e., "Killer" in katakana). Seeking to throw L off his trail, Raito joins his detective dad's police team and the two masterminds begin matching wits. The cops are clueless as to Raito's true identity, but L has his suspicions from the beginning. (Not coincidentally, their first encounter is over a chess board.) Then another notebook appears, dropped by the cadaverously handsome shinigami Rem (voiced by Shinnosuke Ikehata).

Its finder is Misa Amane (Erika Toda), a cutesy TV idol who takes a devilish joy in her new powers, including the ability to spot other notebook owners -- namely, Raito. Misa falls hard -- she and Raito have so much in common! -- but Raito is too smart not to see that this affair can only lead to disaster.

Like the first film, "Death Note: The Last Name" is less a shocker -- nary a drop of blood is spilled -- than an elaborate on-screen game, defined by arbitrary rules that may exist for the convenience of the plot, but acquire an absorbing logic of their own (though it helps to be a fan of the manga -- or role-playing games.)

Best known for his "Gamera" and "Godzilla" series installments, director Shusuke Kaneko acknowledges the film's manga roots, while delivering his own, highly stylized take on the "Death Note" world. He conducts his investigations into the nature of good and evil, media-manufactured illusion and all-too-human reality with touches of self-mocking humor and a nod to Ingmar Bergman's "The Seventh Seal," while spelling out everything in cartoonish capitals. The catty rivalry of two TV newsreaders, played by Nana Katase and Sakura Uehara, is one subplot too many, but the ending is clever enough -- and chillingly cautionary. Ryuuk and Rem, as might be expected, have the last laughs.

* * * * *

Also filling theaters is "Kisarazu Cats Eye: World Series," the sequel to the hit 2003 film about five madcap members of the Cats, an amateur baseball team in the Chiba seaside town of Kisarazu. Scripted by Kankuro Kudo ("Go," "Ping Pong") and directed by Fuminori Kaneko, the first film was a picaresque comic gumbo with the team's cancer-stricken leader, one Bussan (Junichi Okada), as its main ingredient. Told he has only six months to live, Bussan decides to go out in style, cramming all the wild-and-wacky action he can into his brief interval before eternity.

Kisarazu Cats Eye: World Series Rating: (3 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star

Director: Fuminori Kaneko
Running time: 132 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Nov. 24, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

As the sequel begins, three years have passed since Bussan's untimely end, and the remaining four Cats have gone their separate ways. The sweet-faced Bambi (Sho Sakurai) is working as a minor bureaucrat for the city government and mourning his fading youth when he hears Bussan's voice from the beyond, urging him to build a baseball field and promising to "come," possibly for a game of pick-up.

Bambi goes in search of the frizzy-haired Master (Ryuta Sato), who has given up his pub in Kisarazu for a pushcart in Osaka, the blonde-haired Ani (Takashi Tsukamoto), who is bumming around Akihabara, and the spiky-haired Utchi (Yoshinori Okada), who has joined the Self-Defense Force and is thus spiky haired no more. At first skeptical of Bambi's story, the boys become believers -- and determined to give Bussan a proper farewell.

Wackiness abounds on the way to this conversion, supplied by both the boys and the eccentric town folk, including the miraculously revived corpse of an alcoholic homeless guy, Ozzy (Arata Furuta). But rather than ascend to the loony heights of the first film, which featured a rampaging monster that was a brother to the Marshmallow Man in "Ghostbusters," the sequel opts for milder forms of craziness, including a friendly team of American baseball-players-turned-zombies and a sexy, sadistic drill sergeant (Chiaki Kuriyama).

It also aims, as the first film did not, for real pathos -- the "Field of Dreams" references are not for nothing -- and comes closer than I had thought possible when going in. Like his five Cats, scriptwriter Kudo, the cracked boy genius of Japanese films, is growing up. In other words, regardless of the box-office math, say sayonara to Part 3.

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