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Friday, Sept. 28, 2007

'Baum Kuchen'

Brothers work it out


"Bridget Jones's Diary" was yet another variation on the Cinderella story, but instead of becoming the belle of the ball, Renee Zellwegger's Bridget stayed pretty much the same pumpkin throughout, but got her prince anyway.

Baum Kuchen Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Baum Kuchen
Mame Yamada, Hiroshi Yamamoto and Shoichi Honda in "Baum Kuchen"

Director: Kensaku Kakimoto
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 29, 2007
[See Japan Times movie listing]

In director Judd Apatow's male version of the story, "Knocked Up," the pudgy, dorky, unemployed Ben (Seth Rogen) beds and weds the scrumptiously blonde, career-focused Alison (Katharine Heigl) without ever upgrading his wardrobe, tightening his abs, or getting a proper job.

Kensaku Kakimoto's "Baum Kuchen" might be described as "Knocked Up" tripled — and some. Calculating the romantic math of this fantastic voyage through four worlds is like unrolling the title confectionery — that is, damn near impossible. One thing is clear, however: The three mismatched brothers these worlds revolve around make Bridget and Ben look like hot items in the romantic marketplace.

Kakimoto, the young (born in 1982) indie director who wrote "Baum Kuchen" with scriptwriter Kenji Uchiki, is not trying to send up the romcom genre but rather take it to a stranger level. At the same time, he follows the genre's first rule, which is to deliver feelgood tinglies in the third act, while leaving the audience with hope; you too can get the girl, the film promises, even if you are socially inept, physically challenged or behave like an idiot and worse.

"Knocked Up" oversold this promise in squaring the circle of its slacker guy and striver girl. By contrast, "Baum Kuchen" finesses the credibility issue by taking total leave of reality. It also lowers the erotic temperature; its clinches and kisses are on the sweet, not hot, side. And, for all the plot twists, the film is amiably unpretentious, as well as spot-on about certain truths of human nature, including the one that opposites — or rather oddities — attract.

The three brothers are Taro (Mame Yamada), an elderly, vertically challenged barber, Jiro (Hiroshi Yamamoto), a hyper, low-ranking salaryman, and Hiroto (Shoichi Honda), an emotionally disengaged NEET (not engaged in employment, education or training) who holes up in his room reading and dreaming. Uneasily coexisting under the same roof, they are constantly bickering, but they also enjoy sharing their favorite dessert: baum kuchen, a round, layered cake born in Germany. It is also the film's central symbol, standing for the wa (harmonious circle) of familial peace and romantic happiness that its central characters find so elusive.

The three women in the brothers' lives are the free-spirited world traveler Saki (Sae Isshiki), who is the secret crush of the shy Taro; the sweet-spirited office worker Sayuri (Akiko Monou), who is Jiro's fiancee; and the tough-spirited Manami (Asami Imajuku), who is a childhood friend of Hiroto's and a professional baker of baum kuchen. There are complications, of course, such as the budding acquaintance between Saki and Hiroto that puts Taro into a lather, the attempted seduction of Sayuri by a handsome, smooth-talking colleague and the unrequited love of a doughy-faced baker's assistant for Manami.

There are also three other worlds in the film, spun out of this one. The first, and strangest, is a bar lit in the bilious shades of a booze-soaked dream, where a tiny patron (Yamada) tells the skeptical master (Yamamoto) about the deeper meaning of baum kuchen and how it relates to the lives and loves of the three brothers. They are interrupted by the entrance of a tipsy woman (Monou), who is attracted to the dishy-if-silent bartender (Honda) — and begins to spin a tale from the novel she is reading, "The Loves of Baum Kuchen." The heroine is Yumi (Imajuku), a dour young woman who works in a flower shop and has a crush on a tall, Japanese-Brazilian customer, but can't bring herself to go beyond shop talk. The third world is that of the novel's writer, Masatoshi (Honda, yet again), who is struggling with a new book but finds inspiration from his young niece, who wants to hear the next chapter of his story.

These various worlds unfold — or rather circle — in slow motion, interspersed with punchy comic bits, such as Jiro's frantic chase after the rat who . . . but let's not give away a major plot point.

The work of director Nobuhiro Yamashita is one obvious inspiration for this film, from the casting of Yamamoto, a frequent presence in Yamashita's films, to Yamashita's puckish humor and surrealistic stylistics (which in turn are influenced by Finnish filmmaker Aki Kaurismaki).

Kakimoto, however, is more upfront than the diffident Yamashita about his themes, starting with Yamada's barroom discourse on baum kuchen. He is also more out-there in his imaginative flights, while taking care to link all his various worlds together. Unlike some directors (not Yamashita) who play tricky narrative games with a sadistic disregard for the audience, Kakimoto is more accommodating and forgiving. All becomes sweetly clear.

Meanwhile, the unlikely brothers meld together as a fraternal unit while emerging as distinct, if distinctly odd, personalities. Magician-turned-actor Mame Yamada has been a favorite of indie directors for more than two decades, but Kakimoto is the first director I know of who has used him as more than a spice — or as a sideshow attraction. His kissing scene — no spoiler, it's in the trailer — is touching and true. This movie is no mere confection — but then, neither is baum kuchen.



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