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Friday, Oct. 30, 2009
Tossing cash round like confetti
"A fool and his money are soon parted" and all its many variations is a common theme in films, from the heist-of-a-lifetime that ruins so many lives in "Goodfellas" to Gary Cooper handing out his inherited fortune to total strangers in "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and then coming to regret it.
Yoshimitsu Morita's "Watashi Dasuwa" ("I Will Give"), though, reminded me more of the 1950s U.S. show "The Millionaire," in which a wealthy industrialist, his face never seen, would have his urbane private secretary deliver a cashier's check for $1 million — big money in those days — to someone the industrialist had researched, but had never met. Instant wealth didn't always lead to instant happiness, but the fantasy the show sold — a stranger at your door who knows your dreams and wants to underwrite them — was a powerful one.
The benefactor in "Watashi Dasuwa," however, is the very visible Maya (Koyuki), who returns from Tokyo to her hometown in Hokkaido just as the TV news shows are reporting gold bars showing up in the mailboxes of ordinary folks. When Maya gives ¥100,000 tips to the two dumbfounded moving guys (saying, "Use it to make good memories," with a Mona Lisa smile) we start to wonder if she is the Ms. Moneybags the media is in a dither about.
The film, which Morita ("The Family Game," "Southbound") also scripted, examines that question, but is more interested in money's effect on dreams, wishes and relationships. Morita's take on this theme is, by Hollywood standards, almost bizarrely slow-paced and low-key. No one screams with delight at having a small fortune dumped in their lap (or rather handed over with that mysterious smile). No lines of suppliants, their eyes aglow with need and greed, form outside Maya's modest, unfurnished apartment. No one shoots or strangles or otherwise harms anyone else to get their hands on the loot, though a suspicious-looking chap named Mizoguchi (Toru Nakamura) follows Maya about, wanting to know her secret.
This is par for the narrative course for Morita, whose characters tend to be humanly weak, but finally lovable, including the scoundrels. Many filmmakers here use this approach to compliment the audience for being yasashi Nihonjin (gentle Japanese). Morita, however, is trying for something more nuanced and universal than the usual not-for-export melodrama.
Maya focuses her philanthropy on five former high-school classmates, all of whom once said something that touched or impressed her, so much so that she remembers it, word-for-word, a decade or so later.
One is the tall, lanky, good-natured Michiue (Shunya Isaka), a streetcar driver who wants to travel the world to ride other remnants of this dying form of transportation. Another is the tightly wound Kawakami (Takashi Yamanaka), a one-time star runner who wants to race in marathons, but needs expensive medical treatment to become competitive again. Largesse from Maya make both these dreams possible.
Then there is Sakura (Eiko Koike), a housewife who seems happy enough with her lot — the only thing she can think to request from Maya is a refrigerator.
Certainly worthy of support is the ruggedly handsome Hori (Yukiyoshi Ozawa), a researcher who is studying the signals fish make in reaction to changes in their environment. He is something of a womanizer, however — and Maya is one of his targets. But he gets his cash anyway.
Finally, and least worthily, comes Saki (Tomoka Kurotani), a pretty, spoiled club hostess who was once a company president's trophy wife. She dreams of piling up a fortune, without being too picky about the method. Can Mayu help?
The answer, for not only Saki but the other four as well, is "yes" and "no." Maya can give, but she can't change character. She can't even save the person she loves most — her mother, comatose in a town hospital. Her generosity, we see, may not be as selfless as it seems. Is she expiating her guilt for being a neglectful daughter? Or is she unloading ill gotten gains?
Koyuki, a model-turned-actress ("The Last Samurai," "Always") with the classic beauty of a Kannon (Goddess of Mercy) statue, has the right presence for the character — slightly distanced and enigmatic, but with reserves of strong feeling. It's easy to believe that Mayu, once a shy, quiet girl overwhelmed by the personalities of her more boisterous classmates, would remember a kindness — or just a moment of focused attention — years later.
She is also, to put it bluntly, incredibly naive about the outcomes of her actions, like a child who gives her pet hamster to a cat as a playmate. Money is not just the key that opens the door to dreams; it can also be a rod that stirs up sleeping demons. Morita understands that, but he assumes his demons, at least, have decent hearts. Would that it were really so.