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Friday, June 1, 2007
Speaking straight from the heart
Japanese are often stereotyped (and tend to stereotype themselves) as bad communicators — or just plain silent. Men, especially, are praised for being miserly with words, though their wives may long for something more than the furo, meshi, neru (bath, food and sleep) that is said to be the sum total of their at-home conversation. Also, the local feminine ideal is the quietly demure, not the vocally demonstrative.
The reality, as anyone who ever tuned into a tarento- (TV personality) crowded variety show knows, is more complex. With 20 or more tarento competing for precious air time, the standouts tend to be agile and inventive talkers — or motor-mouthed. The tongue-tied, minus outstanding physical or other attributes, are usually mocked or ignored. Even D-cup cuties need to turn a phrase, even a deliberately idiotic one, if they want a career of any duration.
Hideyuki Hirayama's "Shaberedomo, Shaberedomo (Talk, Talk, Talk)" shows that the verbal bar for rakugoka (comic storytellers) is higher than the Japanese show-business norm. Unlike many TV comics who use everything and anything for laughs — from gross physical humor to schoolyard bullying — traditional rakugoka have to be verbal virtuosos, playing several roles with no props but a folding fan, while putting across centuries-old stories that many in the audience know by heart.
Hirayama's hero, a young rakugoka named Mitsuba (Taichi Kokubun), is a self-described "idiot" trying to stand out in a crowded field, in a dying art — and he's only scraping by. His shisho (teacher), the crusty veteran Kosanmon (Shiro Ito), calls him a stiff and urges him to quit. After years of struggling, only to still see audiences yawn and file out midway through his act, he is inclined to agree, but something — stubborn pride, a love of the art — keeps him going.
Based on an eponymous novel by Takako Sato, "Shaberedomo, Shaberedomo" has the zero-to-hero genre's typical story arc, but it is less plot- than character-driven.
Hirayama expertly mixed comedy, drama and social commentary in "Za Chugaku Kyoshi (Games Teachers Play)" (1992), "Warau Kaeru (The Laughing Frog)" (2002) and "Out" (2002), and he does so again in this film — but with an added layer of difficulty. Most of his main characters are not lovable winners-to-be but types you'd edge away from at a party: i.e., wooden, angry or, like poor Mitsuba, laboring under a cloud of failure.
Through a strange twist or two of fate, Mitsuba ends up teaching three students the art of speaking: Satsuki Tokawa (Karina), a beauty who's also a walking, breathing, silent definition of "sullen"; Murabayashi (Yuuki Morinaga), a mouthy Osaka kid who has moved to Tokyo and is being bullied by classmates for his Kansai dialect; and Yugawara (Yutaka Matsushige), a lanky former pro baseball player failing in his new career as a commentator because he is a mealy-mouthed disaster on the air.
Mitsuba gives the trio a rakugo routine to learn, but none of them are really interested in the art form. He, meanwhile, is tackling one of his master's favorite routines, "The Flaming Drum," for a show put on by the master and his disciples once a year. As another disciple notes, this is pretty bold of Mitsuba, since the audience will be full of the master's fans, who will be comparing every syllable of Mitsuba's interpretation with his mentor's.
It's easy enough to see where this is going — make-or-break performances by the four principals — but for the first half hour, it is unclear how Hirayama can make this unpromising crew not so much silver-tongued as minimally sympathetic and interesting.
He succeeds brilliantly, not by manipulation but by revelation — that is, by showing us what was there all along, from real-deal talent to the ability to smile.
In Satoko Okudera's script, the various personal journeys count for more than the formulaic destinations. And where a hack would simplify — to drive home the story's life lessons — Hirayama complicates; his characters are recognizably human bundles of competing impulses who act for reasons not always noble, including anger and fear. His big lesson is that real fluency comes from not so much a practiced tongue as a free heart. To really let it rip, as a rakugoka or anything else, you first have to uncensor your true thoughts and feelings. Several of the rakugo performances are hilarious; Ito's droll, understated turn as Kosanmon depicting an idiot furniture-store owner and his irritable wife in "The Flaming Drum" brings the house down.
As Mitsuba, Kokubun has an arguably harder role, since he has to show not only the finished product but the process of creation and personal change. He also has to give us reason for believing that Mitsuba's attraction to the morose Satsuki is more than a plot device. Kokubun, a member of the J-Pop group Tokio who has become a TV drama star but has only one previous film credit, accomplishes both tasks to perfection, with no trace of TV drama dramatics.
Some of Hirayama's recent project choices, including the video-gamey period drama "Makai Tensho (Samurai Resurrection)," made me wonder if he was drifting away from his real strength: meaty, but comically flavored, character drama. "Shaberedomo, Shaberedomo," though, is a triumphant return to form.
Mark Schilling programmed a miniretro of Hirayama's films for the 2003 Udine Far East Film Festival and invited him to Udine, Italy.