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Friday, May 18, 2007
'Pacchigi! Love & Peace'
Shattering rosy views of the war
In 2004, Kazuyuki Izutsu made "Pacchigi! (Pacchigi! We Shall Overcome Someday)," a serio-comic Romeo and Juliet romance set in 1960s Kyoto. Starring Shun Shioya as a naive high school boy and Erika Sawajiri as the cute-but-tough zainichi (ethnic Korean living in Japan) girl whom he falls for, the film won many honors and awards, including the Best One prize of Kinema Junpo magazine's critics poll.
I put the film on my own list of best movie's of the year but was a bit surprised that it became a critics' favorite, since it is anything but arty. Born in Nara, trained in the pink ("adult") film business and now well-known as a sharp-tongued television commentator, Izutsu makes films, including "Pacchigi!," "Nodo Jiman" (1999) and "Kishiwada Shonen Gurentai" (1996), that examine working-class life with rough humor, unabashed melodrama and from-the-gut sympathy.
Also, more than active Japanese director, Izutsu knows how to stage a good brawl, with the sort of bruisingly realistic choreography that demonstrates the director's street cred and the cast's dedication to getting it right — even if they end up black and blue. It's hard to think of a modern Hollywood equivalent, though several Korean directors match Izutsu in the filming of mano-a-mano mayhem.
His followup, "Pacchigi! Love & Peace," opens with such a brawl, as members of a rightist university cheerleading squad tangle with boys from a Korean high school on a subway platform. The year is 1974, when Japan was in recession, the Cold War was raging, and rightists regarded the zainichi community, especially those with roots in North Korea, as a low-life commie fifth column.
Into this mess wades Lee An Sung (Shunya Isaka), a former Kyoto bad boy and the older brother of the heroine of the first film. Now, however, he is living in Tokyo's Edagawa Korea Town with his mother and young son, who suffers from muscular dystrophy. He has come to the capital in the hope of finding better treatment for the boy while working at his uncle's shop, which makes cheap sandals. But when he runs across Kondo (Kenta Kiritani), an old Kyoto rival and now a cheerleading top gun, the old urge to butt heads gets the better of him, and he is soon in the thick of the action.
So is the new film "Pacchigi! Redux?" Not really. For one thing, the cast is totally different. For another, after the initial dust up, the story shifts further than the original in the direction of family melodrama, with the tears flowing copiously on the screen (if not always in the aisles). Finally, as the subtitle indicates, Izutsu wants to make a big statement about both old Japanese colonialism and new Japanese nationalism — and how the latter's rosy-colored view of the war fails to jibe with the facts, especially as viewed by Korean conscripts and their families.
Izutsu's stylistic tool of choice is the sledgehammer rather the scalpel, and he charges up the screen with his anger at the injustices inflicted on the war's victims, as well as the lies of today's war apologists. He is not simply a short-fused controversialist, however, but a talented satirist and realist whose caricatures and gags are grounded in personal experience and close observation.
He uses two story lines to slam home his points. One is the struggle of An Sung's sister Kyung Ja (Yuri Nakamura) to rise in the 1970s' Japanese movies, which may be full of zainichi talents but forbids them from revealing their backgrounds (though other zainichi know exactly who they are). Taking the all-Japanese name Yuko Aoyama, she works hard to succeed in an often degrading trade, with the goal of sending her nephew to the United States for expensive treatment.
On the road upward she finds support and more from a nice-guy star (Hidetoshi Nishijima), as well as a tempting offer of a big role from a sleazy producer (Lasalle Ishii). His movie, however, is a flag-waver glorifying the tokkotai (kamikaze) pilots — an obvious dig at "Ore wa, Kimi no Tame Koso, Shi ni Iku (For Those We Love)," the new tokkotai drama executive-produced by Tokyo's rightist governor, Shintaro Ishihara — though examples of similar pics from the film's era abound.
The film also tells the parallel story of An Sung and Kyung Ja's father, a Korean conscripted during the war who fled with several companions to avoid what they regarded as certain death and ended up on a South Pacific island — where the Japanese Army happened to be stationed. Izutsu uses these adventures to show us, minus the self-imposed blinders of the typical commercial filmmaker, how the Japanese Army treated Koreans and other subject peoples. "Subtle" is not an appropriate word to describe his style, but this section offers a sharp rebuttal to the war romanticists, as they go about their god-given task of indoctrinating young people with good old-fashioned yamatodamashi (Japanese spirit).
The supporting cast includes many familiar faces, including TV talent Takuya Fujii as An Sung's Japanese buddy and Kyung Ja's awkward suitor. Best known in the West as the flamboyant talk show host Matthew in "Lost In Translation," Fujii strives manfully to play it straight, when he is really needed as comic relief.
In the end, though, Izutsu delivers the big, emotional, strip-it-bare climax he has been aiming for since scene one — a cinematic hard right to the jingoist jaw. Will there be repercussions? In today's political and social climate, the risks of making such a film are quite real. I have the feeling, though, that rightist thugs will hesitate before tackling Izutsu. This is one director who will go down fighting.
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