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Friday, Jan. 19, 2007
After death the truth can hurt
"Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive," wrote Sir Walter Scott -- words of wisdom for married cheaters, who rarely turn out to be as clever in their sexual games as they first imagined. Too often passion overcomes prudence as hard-to-explain credit card bills and "business trips" accumulate, until even the dullest partner gets the message.
But as Junji Sakamoto's "Tamamoe (Awakening)" illustrates, some weavers of webs are skillful indeed, leading double lives until the very end.
The film's cheating husband, played by an angelic-looking Akira Terao, rouses no suspicion in his wife, played by a frazzled-looking Jun Fubuki, and two grown children. He is often out of the house, busy with work or his hobby -- making and tasting soba noodles with a small circle of connoisseurs -- but in the Japanese context, in which an absent husband is traditionally praised as a good husband, this is hardly unusual.
Also, the hubby, Takayuki, is an undemonstrative sort who celebrates his retirement at age 60 by shaking his wife, Toshiko's, hand. Hardly the type, one would think, to be swept up in a grand affair, until death finally reveals the truths he had kept so carefully hidden.
Working from a novel by Natsuo Kirino, Sakamoto has filmed the plight of his middle-class, middle-age heroine as a girl-gets-her-groove-back melodrama, but with touches of humor, from the gentle to the slapsticky. He took a similar approach with "Kao (Face)," his 1999 masterpiece about a frumpy recluse, Naomi Fujiyama, who accidentally kills her fashion-plate sister and escapes on a turbulent voyage of self-discovery. The film and Sakamoto were showered with prizes, including a Japan Academy Best Director Award, but "Kao" was confusing to some foreign fans used to Hollywood's insistence that heroines in "women's pictures" be basically heroic, if not outright role models, boring or no.
In "Tamamoe," Sakamoto, who also wrote the script, moves the needle farther toward the center -- that is, he squarely targets the mainstream female audience, while finding amusingly quirky, if not always original, ways to undercut genre expectations.
At the funeral that opens the film, Toshiko faces, not only an ending, but a beginning: After decades of being a wife and mother -- and identifying herself solely as such -- she is on her own, free to be -- what exactly? Her grown daughter, Miho (Takako Tokiwa), and son, Akiyuki (Testushi Tanaka), both want her to stay a selfless enabler of their selfish existences. Akiyuki, having failed to make it in the United States, announces his intention of moving -- together with his wife and two kids -- back in with dear old Mom, to "take care of" her, though Toshiko, no idiot, knows that she is being taken advantage of.
Then Takayuki's cellphone rings and Toshiko hears the voice of a strange woman, one Akiko Ito (Yoshiko Mita), who is uncommonly upset by the news of Takayuki's passing. Soon after, Toshiko learns that Takayuki stopped going to meetings of his soba circle months ago -- and she starts putting two and two together.
Suspicion leads to shock when Toshiko finds that Akiko, a noodle-shop proprietor, is not only Takayuki's longtime lover, but older than herself. Her three best friends from high school (played by Yumiko Fujita, Saori Yuki, Yoko Kon) offer support of a sort, but they are still acting out roles from their long ago youth.
They don't really see her as she is now, shattered self-confidence and all.
Deciding to escape from everything and everyone she knows, Toshiko checks into a capsule hotel, where she encounters a salty old regular (Haruko Kato) whose tale of woe is worse than her own. She charges Toshiko for the dubious pleasure of hearing it, but Toshiko comes away feeling somehow inspired -- and connected. Her real journey has begun.
Along the way she encounters the expected bumps, as well as the expected tall, handsome Younger Man (Etsushi Toyokawa). All this and more echoes American feminist films of a generation ago, such as "Unmarried Woman," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Shoot the Moon," in which mature women struggled to find new lives and selves from the wreckage of failed relationships.
The always-excellent Fubuki does not play Toshiko as a 1970s throwback, however. Her naivete as Toshiko is a bit hard to swallow -- the poor woman barely knows how to use a cellphone, let alone fend off grifters like her friend at the capsule hotel -- but she is also capable of a saving rage, as her bracingly explosive confrontation with the smirkily superior Akiko makes clear. Fubuki's performance offers a fresh definition of spunk, over-50 female division -- endearingly sweet -- and unstoppable, with a growing awareness of unpleasant truths acting as a propellant.
Sakamoto has gone to war in three of his recent outings -- "KT" (2002), "Kono Yo no Soto e (Out of This World)" (2004) and "Bokoku no Aegis (Aegis)" (2005), but in "Tamamoe" he has given us a different profile in courage -- and an object lesson for philanderers: Love may fade, but affairs live forever.