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Friday, Aug. 22, 2008
A mixed bag of nuttiness
Omnibus films — collections of segments, usually by different directors — are hard commercial sells, but rarely complete disappointments.
Usually at least one director delivers a small gem. Also, you are finished with a clunker quickly, instead of enduring it for two hours or so. A win-win situation, no?
Not really, from the evidence of "R246 Story," an omnibus with six celebrity directors. All save for one, indie superstar Tadanobu Asano, are neophytes behind the camera, and the results are more uneven than the omnibus norm — that is, very uneven indeed.
The thread tying all six segments together is the title road, which starts in trendy Omotesando and wends its 122.7 km way to Numazu in Shizuoka Prefecture. Instead of following a common narrative thread, however, the six stories are a mixed lot whose connections to R246 are mostly tangential.
The first, by kabuki-actor-turned-movie-star Shidou Nakamura, is a time-travel fantasy featuring Nakamura as the excitable underling of fabled Edo Period (1603-1867) outlaw Shimizu Jirocho (Koji Matoba). A potentially funny premise — a topknot-wearing swordsman journeys to 21st-century Tokyo to set the natives straight on real Japanese values — devolves into a blur as Nakamura's character scolds smoking teens, faces off against pro wrestlers and otherwise behaves like a celebrity on a madcap TV-reality show.
Seeing the scion of a centuries-old acting tradition trying to mix old-school swashbuckling with modern media tomfoolery has its interest, though mine started to wane in about the length of an MTV video clip.
The second segment, by ex-fighter Genki Sudo, is an amateurish attempt at slacker comedy. Four young guys sit by the side of R256, counting traffic. Three are goof-offs, but one, Inoue (Sudo), is deadly serious. He is, his colleagues discover, searching for his lost love in all those passing cars. They vow to help him, but Inoue's description of his inamorata is frustratingly vague. Once again a clever premise goes missing, as the story shambles along with little comic edge or narrative drive.
The third, by MC Verbal of the hip-hop duo m-flo, is a straight-up documentary on the rise and fall of the Japanese hip-hop scene, with Verbal, resplendent in a red baseball cap and orange-framed shades, interviewing musicians and producers. The subject is of limited interest — Japanese rap has a small fan base at home and is virtually unknown abroad — but Verbal's subjects are a diverse and articulate lot and the entire segment is expertly subtitled in English.
Ilmari, the MC of the hip-hop outfit Rip Slyme, directs a charming, if slight, segment about a naive young part-timer at a big music company who has a crush on a gorgeous female staffer. He trails her into a trendy club where he is out his depth fashion-wise and every-other-wise. But instead of exiting after finding his sweetie with an intimidatingly hip DJ, he starts to feel the beat — and ends up staying till dawn. The hero's transformation from klutz to clubber is cute but predictable. (His charmer's opinion of him changes when he takes off his black-rimmed specs and reveals himself as — guess what? — a good-looking guy.)
Tadanobu Asano, who has spent much of his career playing rebel loners, from the charismatic to the psychotic (sometimes both in the same film), embodies one of his most extreme characters in his segment: He is a bare-chested alien, named 246, who has been beamed down from a rock 'n' roll planet and communicates in grunts, moans and cryptic gestures. 246 is discovered by a ragged homeless man (Ryo Kase) and a wild child of indeterminate sex while he's searching desperately for a missing drum kit, without which he cannot return home. This threesome embark on a quest that culminates in an epic guitar battle.
The script, by indie auteur Shinji Aoyama, is a parodistic trifle, but Asano as the alien is at once inhumanly remote and bizarrely uninhibited, with a strange power to disturb.
The best arrives last: comic Yusuke Santamaria's segment about an odd couple — a hard-working career woman (Hiromi Nagasaku) and the bone-lazy proprietor of a coffee van (Santamaria) — who parks within sight of her office. They meet every day at lunch time to share the elaborate obento (boxed lunch) the woman has prepared. The man takes this feast as his due — and dozes off immediately after he has stuffed himself.
As written, this is a mildly clever skit on the familiar theme of female masochism and male piggishness, but Nagasaku transforms it with a genius display of nearly wordless comic acting. Slaving in the kitchen early in the morning, she is the picture of mad determination, brusquely chopping the vegetables and unceremoniously dumping the ingredients into the pot, in stark, funny contrast to the deft technique of the usual Japanese movie chef. But she is also expressing resentment — with the veggies standing for her shiftless guy — that becomes more apparent as the story progresses. This woman, we realize, is not only warped, but sharp, as she realizes how crazy her obento ritual is.
So "R256" has its gem — almost entirely in the performance of Nagasaku. Too bad she isn't in a better film — she deserves a Chaplin for a director, not a Santamaria.