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Friday, Feb. 8, 2008
'L Change the World'/'Team Batista no Eiko'
Ghosts out, real-life horror in
Movies, as an astute producer once told me, are news. Much of the medical news recently, from Japan and elsewhere, has been scary, including stories about out-of-control viruses and out-of-their-minds doctors and nurses who kill instead of cure their patients. So why make yet another dull J-Horror pic with a long-haired female ghost when real life is becoming more frightening?
That seems to be the reasoning behind both the medical mystery "Team Batista no Eiko (Glorious Team Batista)," and "L Change the World," the sequel to the hit "Death Note" films that feature their most popular character — the so-called genius detective L.
This time L (Kenichi Matsuyama) is not battling Kira — the twisted college student who dealt death by writing the victim's name in a mysterious notebook. Instead his opponents are members of a crazed environmental group who want to "cleanse" the world of its excess population by infecting it with a deadly virus. The story of how L is recruited to save humanity is convoluted. Suffice to say that he becomes the guardian of a mute Thai boy — who's been traumatized by the ravaging of his village by the virus — while trying to rescue a girl trapped in a hospital's infectious diseases lab. And he's discovered that he has only 23 days left to live — his name and date of death have been inscribed in the fatal notebook.
Directed by Hideo Nakata, best-known internationally for his work in the "Ring" J-Horror series and its remakes, the film has the pace and dynamism of a Hollywood thriller — the producers no doubt have visions of the Michael Bay remake dancing in their heads. But it is also rife with genre cliches — starting with L's ticking time bomb of a life span, as well as the sort of over-acting that was mostly absent from Nakata's J-Horror work. (His ghosts, especially, didn't go in for histrionics.) Even the victims of the virus writhe and grimace like wounded gangsters in a Kinji Fukasaku yakuza pic. (The hoods, excitable types to begin with, had more of an excuse.)
Matsuyama, who made L a pasty-faced, kohl-eyed, sweet-toothed byword for otaku (geek) strangeness — and brilliance — in the "Death Note" films, is required to run, dodge bullets and otherwise make like an action hero in "L Change the World." A skilled and resourceful actor, Matsuyama tries manfully to adapt — he runs in a scuttling, bent-over way that is both funny and somehow in character, but he can't overcome the awkwardness of L's situation. L is essentially a brain attached to a computer and fed by an endless supply of junk food — his geek mystique disappears when he is thrust into the daylight and forced to act instead of analyze. It's something like plunking Dracula down in a beach movie and asking him to surf.
"Team Batista no Eiko" also has a ripped-from-the-headlines story: When a crack heart-surgery team starts to lose patient after patient, foul play is suspected by the hospital administration and an in-house investigation is launched.
Takeru Kaido's best-selling novel, on which the film is based, is inspired more by Agatha Christie than a medical thriller writer such as Michael "The Andromeda Strain" Crichton.
As in a Christie novel, there is a closed circle of respectable-looking, but actually dodgy, suspects, an eccentric-but-dogged investigator and crimes that are more like puzzles than horror stories.
This is a common formula for Japanese mysteries, but the execution of director Yoshihiro Nakamura and his cast, led by Hiroshi Abe and Yuko Takeuchi, is mold-breaking in a darkly comedic way.
The investigator, Taguchi (Takeuchi), is a pleasantly spacey hospital therapist who draws the team members as the animals they remind her of after she interviews them. She soon concludes, all-too-naively, that the deaths are accidents.
Then in barges an arrogant health ministry bureaucrat, Shiratori (Abe), who rudely labels her report nonsense and declares he detects murder most foul.
As this pair digs deeper, we see that Shiratori, obnoxious though he may be, knows his way around an operating room and that Taguchi, clueless as she may seem, understands a thing or two about human nature, including the human tendency to dissemble and deceive. Together they begin to piece together a case and narrow in on a suspect. Abe does his now standard turn as a cad with a good-enough heart, while Takeuchi's Taguchi is something more than a sympathetic ditz. She's got a quiet stubborn streak as well as more brain cells than her partner gives her credit for.
The seven members of the team fall more neatly into familiar medical-drama categories — bumbling nurse, even-tempered anesthetist, hot-tempered young surgeon. Also, the mystery ends up being not so mysterious, but the lively if prickly interplay between Abe and Takeuchi, as well as the film's sharp insights into the absurdities and frauds of the Japanese medical system, make "Batista" more than the sum of its clues — and news clippings.