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Friday, June 5, 2009
'Ultra Miracle Love Story'
Pleasingly of the beaten track
Johnny Depp seems to be a role model for Japanese actors with leading man looks, but who almost never plays straight leading man roles. That is, roles in which they romance and win the leading lady — comic fight-and-make-up scenes optional. If Depp's career is any indication, this is a brilliant strategy, though female fans may beg to differ.
Tadanobu Asano, Jo Odagiri and now Kenichi Matsuyama are prominent examples of this phenomenon — all have been successful at parlaying offbeat roles into stardom.
Matsuyama got his big break as L, the sweets-addicted "genius detective" in the three hit "Death Note" films, including the spin-off "L — Change the World." He then essayed the doofus hero of the manga adaptation "Detroit Metal City," who longs to play treacly pop music, but ends up fronting a death-metal band.
In Satoko Yokohama's "Ultra Miracle Love Story," Matsuyama plays Yojin Mizuki, a mentally challenged man living with his grandmother (Misako Watanabe) in rural Aomori Prefecture. The polar opposite of the pasty-faced, intellectual L, Yojin brims with energy that ranges from the playful to the destructive. He is a cross between a full-of-beans kid and a troubled man with all the usual appetites, including sexual ones.
In other words, Matsuyama is playing not another cartoon, but a fleshed-out character who is also mythopoetically larger than life. Think a latter-day Japanese version of Boo Radley in "To Kill a Mockingbird."
We first see Yojin shocked awake in his ramshackle house by a cacophony of alarm clocks. After examining the white board where he carefully records his day's schedule, he ventures out into his garden, where he disconsolately examines the cabbages, full of holes made by hungry insects. He then greets his grandmother, who answers curtly, her eyes glued on the television. So far, so mildly comic.
The film soon shifts into a different, stranger gear with the arrival in town of Machiko (Kumiko Aso), the new teacher at the local kindergarten. She has come all the way from Tokyo to Aomori to not only teach, but to consult the local medium about the unquiet spirit of her dead husband (Arata), decapitated in a traffic accident.
Yojin and Machiko first meet at the kindergarten, where Yojin has come to sell his vegatables. He takes an immediate liking to this attractive, city-bred woman and, after school, offers to escort her home. When she refuses, he starts to drag her off by main force.
As this scene suggests, where a Hollywood movie with a mentally challenged hero would tiptoe, Yokohama treads boldly, if sensitively. An Aomori native who won many prizes for her early indie work, including her 2006 feature debut "German + Ame" ("German + Rain"), Yokohama films the locals not as an anthropologist studying an exotic tribe, but as an affectionate, clear-eyed native who gets both the accents and eccentricities right.
At the same time, she has made more than another feel-good drama about a disabled hero. Yojin is a volatile mix of free-spirited exuberance, romantic fantasies and violent frustration, though he does far more harm to himself than those around him. Finally, after accidentally-on-purpose poisoning himself with insecticide, and being treated by the gruff, if good-hearted Dr. Misawa (Yoshio Harada), he encounters Machiko's husband, minus his head, on the Other Side.
We are not, we realize, in a typical Japanese commercial movie, easy to slot by genre and target audience. We are also not in one of the many Japanese indie films that proclaim their seriousness with downbeat moods and wispy naturalism.
Yokohama, who also wrote the script, has instead made an original hybrid of a film that may venture into the blackly comic and freakily surreal, but makes good, if odd, emotional sense. Yojin and Machiko, we see, are two lonely outsiders, one of whom like kids, the other who happens to think like one. Their connection, though not conventionally romantic, has a certain rightness, as does Yojin's apparently mad, self-destructive pursuit of his dream.
Also, "Ultra Miracle Love Story" does not play out the way the title promises. The ending shocks — and follows from everything that came before. Is the film itself a miracle? Not quite — it's more a collection of arresting scenes and images than a coherent, cathartic whole. Is it touched with the magic of a real talent? Most definitely.