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Thursday, Nov. 1, 2007



Eyes on Japan's crazed radicalism, twisted psychology

Special to The Japan Times

This year's Tokyo International Film Festival was a bit different for me. For the first time since 2003 I was not on the jury for Japanese Eyes, a section spotlighting Japanese movies that might otherwise get lost in the glare of big commercial releases. This gave me more leeway to pick and choose what I wanted to see. In any case, I managed to take in 11 local films not only in the Japanese Eyes but the Competition and Special Screenings sections as well.

News photo
Koji Wakamatsu's "United Red Army," a deserving award winner at TIFF.

And the winner is . . .

Best makeup: The female radical in "United Red Army" who, ordered to punish herself for "coquettish" behavior, punches her face into a disturbing simulacrum of a battered crone.

Most mind-messing plot twist: In the final 15 minutes of "Peeping Tom" and, no, I'm not giving it away.

Most agile kid in a kung-fu comedy: Zhang Zhuang as the title character in Issei Oda's "Kung-fu Kid (Kunfu-kun)." Cast out of 2,000 hopefuls, this pint-size dynamo has the martial-arts chops (and kicks), as well as an unlimited supply of charm hardly common in child actors.

Best art-house attempt at silent movie: Masahiro Kobayashi's "Re-birth," in which the protagonists — the father of a murdered school girl and the mother of her classmate/murderer — conduct their daily routines in close proximity without saying a word for the better part of an hour. Less a movie than a Zen meditation on the limits of antagonism and soul- crushing tedium.

The best of these by far was "United Red Army (Jitsuroku Rengo Sekigun — Asama Sanso e no Dotei)," Koji Wakamatsu's 3-hour epic about the bloody and brutal events that, in February 1972, led up to five student radicals barricading themselves inside the Asano mountain lodge in Nagano Prefecture. The incident ended up as a one-sided gun battle with police.

The battle, reported round-the-clock by the Japanese media, riveted the entire country and became emblematic of the descent of idealistic student activism (fueled by oppostion to the Vietnam War) in the early 1970s.

As a direct witness to this descent who knew well several of the principals, Wakamatsu considers himself, as he told me after the screening, "the only one who could make this film" with the requisite accuracy. Shot in semidocumentary style, "United Red Army" records the growth and devolution of the group, including the deaths of 12 members at the hands of their comrades in the name of "purification."

The scenes of the confession-cum- torture sessions, conducted by the sect's brutally fanatic leaders, may be literal and didactic, but they are also far more powerful, in their unblinking directness and authenticity, than the more usual sensationalizing or romanticizing found in many movies.

Unfortunately, "United Red Army" does not yet have a firm release date in Japan, though it won the Japanese Eyes Best Picture award — a decision jury member Marion Klomfass later told me was quick and uncontested. Hurray for the JE jury — and shame on local distributors for not snapping up this capstone to a brilliant career.

Also worthy, in a very different way, was Yoshihiro Fukagawa's "Peeping Tom (Makiguri no Ana)," which begins as a black comedy about one Ben Makiguri (Hidetoshi Nishijima), a failing writer living a squalid existence in a rooming house, when he notices holes in the paper-thin walls that allow him to spy on the two adjoining rooms. In one, a goofy-looking amateur boxer makes noisy love to his tarty girlfriend and otherwise provides comic relief. The other room is vacant, until a dishy, mysterious woman (Urara Awata) moves in — and Makiguri becomes obsessed with her.

Inspired, he starts scribbling an erotic serial novel for a scuzzy weekly magazine and meets another woman, a nervous, but determined, young editor played by Ayumi Kinoshita. She watches with concern — and finally shock — as Makiguri's peeping, which started as a lark, begins to devour him. Meanwhile, we see that Makiguri's new neighbor is not quite the pure spirit she once seemed — but what is she exactly?

Telling this story, with its echoes of Edogawa Rampo — Japan's premier writer of the erotic and bizarre — Fukagawa keeps his focus on the characters, not the scares, while expertly, if slowly, segueing from comedy/romance to horror in the film's second half. As Makiguri, Nishijima nails the twisted psychology of the deadline-pressured hack, lost in his own world — and flashing out in neurotic irritation at anyone who disturbs it. Don't hold your breath waiting for "Peeping Tom" at your neighborhood multiplex, though — it won't be released until the summer of 2008.

Among the disappointments was "Happily Ever After (Jigyaku no Shi)," the new comedy-drama by Yukihiko Tsutsumi ("Trick," "Memories of Tomorrow"), who is challenging Takashi Miike for the title of Hardest-Working Japanese Director. Starring Miki Nakatani as the abused but everlastingly patient wife of a feckless, violent, but fearlessly protective gangster (Hiroshi Abe), the film is an obvious channeling of the 2006 Tetsuya Nakashima hit "Memories of Matsuko (Kiraware Matsuko no Issho)," but with nowhere near the earlier film's invention, pizzazz and heart.

I wouldn't call Takashi Miike's comic-book-adaptation "Crows — Episode 0 (Crows Zero)," already in cinemas, a disappointment: Miike delivers exactly the sort of over-the-top violence and allround bad-boy behavior that fans of both Miike and the Hiroshi Takahashi comic expect. Gang wars at a bottom-of-the-barrel boys high school have rarely looked so cool. The pretty-boy leads do not quite convince as tough, though, just as Miike's handling of the action sequences, including the Hollywood-style strobing and fast cuts, is not going to impress as innovative anyone who has seen his taboo- shattering earlier work ("Ichi the Killer" for starters). But the film is already sailing toward the ¥3 billion box-office mark — a new Miike record — and his investors are happy. What else is new?

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