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Friday, June 13, 2008

'Kamisama — no Puzzle'

The thrill of physics


Directors and producers who score big hits become big powers in the industry, ipso facto. They can consequently make films that would get their less successful brethren laughed out of a pitch meeting. A new case in point is "Kamisama no Puzzle (God's Puzzle)," an SF thriller by hit-making director Takashi Miike ("Crows") and producer Haruki Kadokawa ("Otokotachi no Yamato") that wrestles with — I am not making this up — the weightier questions of theoretical physics.

Kamisama — no Puzzle Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Masters of the universe: Hayato Ichihara (right) and Mitsuki Tanimura © "KAMISAMA NO PUZZLE" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Takashi Miike
Running time: 134 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (June 13, 2008)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Distributor Toei, not wanting to commit box-office suicide, is not advertising the film as such. Instead they are playing up the presence of hot young stars Hayato Ichihara and Mitsuki Tanimura, while making its subject matter sound like good, crazy fun. ("Make a universe with rock and physics!" goes one line of ad copy.)

I'm a physics buff — I have a small shelf of books on popular physics and devour articles about string theory and multiverses. And, like most laymen who haven't done real physics since high school, I promptly forget 99 percent of what I read.

Even so, I was familiar with the film's premise — that a particle accelerator large enough and powerful enough can re-create the conditions of the Big Bang that gave birth to our universe an estimated 13.7 billion year ago. In fact, physicists at the Large Hadron Collider near Geneva in Switzerland — the biggest particle accelerator in the world — are preparing to search for the Higgs boson — the so-called "God particle" that is considered the Holy Grail of modern physics. Would success send us hurling down a black hole to oblivion? Specialists pooh-pooh such concerns, but Shinji Kimoto wrote a best-selling novel that explores just this possibility — and serves as the basis for "Kamisama no Puzzle."

Kadokawa, however, says he first got the idea for the film in 2003 while serving time in prison for a drug conviction. "Visions came to me . . . and my soul took flight in space," he later reminisced. This out-of-body experience, which he claims gave him insights into the origins of the universe, led him to Kimoto's novel — and inspired him to produce "Kamisama no Puzzle."

The hero, however, is not a spacey mystic, but an aspiring rock star, Motokazu (Ichihara), whose smarter twin brother (Ichihara, again) suddenly decides to leave the country — and asks Motokazu to cover for him at a particle physics seminar.

The teacher is the beautiful but formidable Ms. Hatomura (Yuriko Ishida), who asks Motokazu to visit an absent classmate, the brilliant but reclusive Saraka (Mitsuki Tanimura). He discovers her shut away in her room, absorbed in physics research that he can barely follow, though he manfully tries. Saraka, despite her aloof prodigy act, is charmed by the earnest, if awkward, Motokazu and agrees to return to class.

There a barbed debate ensues between Saraka and the class's other resident genius, the lank-haired Airi (Masaya Kikawada), over her contention that, with the right tools (i.e., the right sort of particle accelerator and software), it is possible to create a new universe. Ms. Hatomura asks her and Motokazu to prove it, as a class project. Saraka, who has personal issues that have given her a grudge against humanity, takes her literally. Goodbye world.

Miike, who tackled metaphysical issues in his bizarro 2004 period actioner "Izo," doesn't shy away from the physics behind the story. Using a script by frequent collaborator Masa Nakamura, he devotes much screen time to laying down the theoretical framework for his particle-colliding third act. The film, in fact, serves as a good introductory lecture on the subject, though audiences who thought they were buying tickets to another wacky Miike thrill ride may beg to differ.

Playing the perpetually perplexed Motokazu, Ichihara is a surprisingly effective teacher — explaining knotty concepts, such as the four fundamental forces, in terms even a fourth-grader (or film reviewer) can understand, as though he were really grappling with them instead of merely regurgitating them. As Saraka, newcomer Tanimura resembles that Kadokawa discovery of the 1980s — Hiroko Yakushimaru — in her dusky teen-idol looks and air of scary determination.

The thrills finally arrive, though they're on the silly side, as does the wackiness, which is up to Miike's usual (literally) incredible standard. But if Hollywood ever does the remake, about 30 minutes of physics talk will go out the window — if not into a black hole.


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