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Friday, March 9, 2007
'Aoki Ookami'/'Ryu ga Gotoku'
Wanna fight? You got it
Selling Japanese movies abroad has never been easy -- the industry makes about 1 percent of its box office overseas, but Haruki Kadokawa and Takashi Miike are both working hard to raise that number, if in radically different ways.
Kadokawa rose to fame in the 1970s and 1980s producing schlocky blockbusters based on the best-selling books of his own publishing house. A master showman, he flogged his films relentlessly and imaginatively -- until a 1993 drug bust derailed his career. Last year, he made a sensational comeback with "Otokotachi no Yamato," a World War II sea epic that earned 5 billion yen at the local box office.
Kadokawa's followup, "Aoki Ookami: Chi Hate Umi Tsukiru Made (The Blue Wolf: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea)," is a biopic of Mongol warlord Genghis Khan, shot entirely in Mongolia, albeit with a mostly Japanese cast.
The film, Kadokawa's publicists proclaim, has already been sold to 60 territories, while Kadokawa himself has said his goal is to have 100 million people around the world watch it, including, one presumes, the entire population of Mongolia.
Directed by Shinichiro Sawai, a longtime Kadokawa collaborator, "Aoki Ookami" resembles "Ten to Chi to (Heaven and Earth)," the 1991 period drama that Kadokawa himself shot in Canada, using thousands of locals as samurai warriors. The larger-than-life characters, the scenes of vast armies colliding and even the wide open spaces of Mongolia itself all spell spectacle of the old-fashioned, pre-CG sort. Everyone, starting with Takashi Sorimachi as Khan, overacts furiously -- or rather epically.
The story traces Khan's life from his beginnings as a boy warrior named Temujin to his rise to Mongolia's khan ("Emperor"). A central plot line is his friendship with Jamuqa (Yusuke Hirayama), a stout-hearted warrior who shares Temujin's dream of uniting all the Mongolians. They become, however, rivals for the hand of the beautiful tribal princess Bolte (Rei Kikukawa) -- who chooses Temujin as her husband. Soon after, Jamuqa joins Temujin's powerful enemies, who are determined to crush this young upstart.
There is much more to the story, based on the real-life machinations and battles that brought Temujin to power. It may portray him as a generically noble leader, but it also shows his ruthlessly political side. He did not get to be Genghis Khan by always being Mr. Nice Guy, did he? This may go down well enough in Ulan Bator, but I wonder about Peoria.
Takashi Miike's latest, "Ryu ga Gotoku," is definitely not for Peoria, but rather for fan boys who have made Miike an international cult fave. Based on a popular Sega game for PlayStation 2, the film is Miike at his most antic and inventive, though his once-trademark outrages, from kinky sex to retch-inducing gore, are less in evidence.
This is in keeping with Miike's stop-start evolution from bad boy to mass entertainer, in such films as "Zebraman" (2004) and "Yokai Daisenso (The Great Yokai War)" (2005). In "Ryu ga Gotoku," however, he is not selling out so much as channeling his formidable imagination and energy in the direction of action comedy. Think "Pirates of the Caribbean," with an eye-patched Goro Kishitani doing Johnny Depp, but also doing every borderline psychotic yakuza in the Miike oeuvre.
The hero is Kazuma Kiryu (Kazuki Kitamura), a gangster back on the streets after 10 years in the slammer. Eager to reunite with the lovely Yumi (Saki Takaoka) -- his childhood friend and something more, he wanders through Kabukicho, where he encounters a lost girl looking for her club hostess mother. Kiryu tries to help her and discovers that her vanished mom is Yumi's sister. Before he can learn their whereabouts, he runs across Mashima (Kishitani), a madball aniki (senior) from his old gang, with whom he has a score to settle.
Meanwhile, the cops are facing off with a pair of idiot bank robbers, and trying to solve the mystery of 10 billion yen in gang money that has gone missing. Naturally, Mashima is looking for the loot as well.
The narrative mix, including the escapades of a pair of feral teen lovers, is better blended than usual for Miike. The action is playfully extreme, the humor wryly black. Miike doesn't subvert genre cliches so much as remix them to his own tastes, which tend to the gaudy, the hyperviolent -- and the macho romantic. Yes, Kiryu turns out to be another tough guy with a heart of gold, though Miike regular Kazuki Kitamura plays him with a prison-hardened, unsentimental edge. He has no ambition to rule the Mongols -- but he just might find himself on the world's screens. Sega has long since gone commercially (not cultishly) global -- why not Miike?