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Friday, Sept. 12, 2008

'Paco to Maho no Ehon'

Holding a candle to truths so dark


Tetsuya Nakashima is being hailed as a genius by the Japanese film world, an epithet that didn't occur to many in the 1990s when his pitch-black comedies, including "Natsu Jikan no Otonatachi (Happy-Go-Lucky)" (1997) and "Beautiful Sunday" (1998), were playing to tiny audiences here and getting little attention abroad.

Paco to Maho no Ehon Rating: (4 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Bedtime stories: Ayaka Wilson (left) and Koji Yakusho in "Paco to Maho no Ehon" © 2008 "PACO AND THE MAGIC BOOK" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Tetsuya Nakashima
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Sept. 13, 2008
[See Japan Times movie listing]

That began to change in 2004 with "Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)." The candy-colored film about two wildly different girls — a spitting punk biker and an eyelash-fluttering "Lolita look" fashionista — who become allies and friends was a sensation on the international festival circuit, though it was a modest hit at home.

Then in 2006, Nakashima released "Kiraware Matsuko no Issho (Memories of Matsuko)," a downbeat drama about a woman who never gets a break, but never gives up her dream of love. Spiced with brassy musical numbers a la "Chicago" and splashed with brightly colored, charmingly fantastic CG animation, "Matsuko" was a mainstream smash and won armloads of awards. That's when Nakashima officially graduated from "brilliant TV CM director who dabbles in films" to "genius." He had turned what should have been a marketing nightmare into a box-office dream.

"Paco to Maho no Ehon (Paco and the Magic Book)," Nakashima's latest, might be described as "Matsuko" for the under-12 set. Once again the story focuses on a luckless heroine — this time a girl, Paco (Ayaka Wilson), who loses her parents in a traffic accident, as well as her ability to remember more than one day in the past. Every day she reads a pop-up book about a grumpy frog king who treats his subjects shabbily until his pond kingdom is invaded by a mighty crayfish wizard. And everyday she discovers it anew, a present from her beloved mother.

And, once again, the most important man in the heroine's life treats her abominably, even abusively. He is Onuki (Koji Yakusho), a tyrannical tycoon who is a heart patient at Paco's hospital and considers none of the no-accounts around him worth his precious time, including the annoying little girl who keeps asking him to read her a picture book. He sends her and her book flying with a punch to the face.

Already, we're not in a Disney film. (Similar male violence against Matsuko made "Memories" a hard sell in the U.S. market.)

Not just Onuki, but all the staff and patients at the hospital — with its crazed Gothic interior and greeting-card-perfect garden — are weird/scary types, including a pierced, tattooed, snarly nurse (Anna Tsuchiya, reprising her "Shimotsuma" biker), a gangster (Takuya Yamauchi) who looks like a yakuza version of Frankenstein's monster, and a former child star (Satoshi Tsumbuki) whose adult career has flamed out and is now melting down hysterically in rehab.

The entire cast, starting with comic Sadao Abe as the mysterious mustachioed narrator, hams it up furiously in the beginning, while the sets are gaudily over-stuffed with everything from newish movie posters to nostalgic old toys. The manically busy CG animation, especially in the sequence that brings the storybook to life, makes even the more hyperactive Hollywood toons (take your pick from "Shrek" on) look like a stroll in a Zen garden.

So is "Paco" the latest in a long line of loud, obnoxious Japanese kiddie movies? Not really.

Here is Nakashima's talent — or genius, if you will: He uses all the glitter and noise not to grab an audience he assumes to be easily distracted morons, but to make his dark truths more palatable, while heightening the irony and, finally, the pathos. One of those truths is that, as Stanley Kubrick put it, "There's something inherently wrong with the human personality — there's an evil side to it." Onuki is not another kiddie-movie grump, but a monster with a canker in his soul. Thus the punch instead of a push.

Another is that, as 99-year-old director Manoel de Oliveira once said regarding his own longevity, "Nature is capricious." That is, in distributing its bounties — and calamities — it is no respecter of youth, innocence or anything else. And it offers no guarantee of a happy ending.

Is "Paco" a snarky gloomfest then? Again, no. As the characters evolve from mangaesque caricatures, we see that behind their poses, they have human feelings and weaknesses. That includes Onuki, who is still capable of feeling shame, meaning he can still be redeemed. He starts reading the book to Paco every day — she only remembers his punch as a "touch" — and gets the idea of staging it as the hospital's annual "Christmas in Summer" play. That is, he begins changing from a monster to a man, capable of disinterested love.

So sweetness and light all around? That isn't Nakashima's style — Paco, Onuki and the rest have other trials to face. Nakashima is no sentimentalist and, despite his film's glossiness, refuses to gloss over the whole human tragicomedy, including its end.

No, "Paco" is not Disney, but Roald Dahl, that nice/nasty genius of kiddie lit, would have liked it.


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