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Friday, Jan. 29, 2010
Japanese cinema delivers two greats to get year rolling
Yoshihiro Nakamura has made a mix of indie and commercial films, from the multilayered, end-of-the-world thriller "Fish Story" (2008) to the hospital mystery "General Rouge no Gaisen" ("The Triumphant General Rouge," 2009). Whatever the subject, he always injects his personal obsessions, from the shape-shifting nature of truth to the connectedness of human beings, even across decades and generations.
His latest, "Golden Slumber," boasts a man-on-the-run story with many Hollywood predecessors (Alfred Hitchcock's "North by Northwest" is one, Doug Liman's "The Bourne Identity," another), but Nakamura uses it, as always, for his own purposes. More than Hollywood thrillers, it's closer in spirit to "The Shawshank Redemption" and "Groundhog Day," with their messages of hope and renewal.
His everyman hero is Aoyagi (Masato Sakai), a delivery-truck driver from Miyagi Prefecture who is reuniting with old college chum Morita (Hidetaka Yoshioka) when something explodes nearby. The new prime minister, riding in an open car, has been assassinated — and Aoyagi becomes the prime suspect. That is, he is the designated patsy of an elaborate plot in which the hapless Morita was involved.
This is a nod to Oliver Stone's conspiracy potboiler "JFK," complete with Morita's observation that Aoyagi is the "new Oswald," but the film's true concern is less with political intrigue — we never learn much about the plot's inner workings — than the issue of trust.
With hundreds of cops on his trail, Aoyagi needs some help from his friends — but which ones? Another college pal, the smiley, nervous Gus (Gekidan Hitori), proves to be a bad choice, but encounters with a former flame (Yuko Takeuchi), a scrappy fellow driver (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), a smiling suspected serial killer (Gaku Hamada) and a canny old hospital patient (Akira Emoto) are more fortunate.
Aoyagi became a local hero two years earlier for an act of random heroism. Still, the help he receives is motivated by more than a few news stories. Something in him has inspired his benefactors to believe in his innocence, despite all the (fake) evidence to the contrary. Are they angels, fools — or something else? And what does The Beatles song that supplies the title have to do with it?
Nakamura, that diligent student of Hollywood mysteries and thrillers, skillfully hurls Aoyagi from one hair-breath escape to another, while semicomically filling in his background, beginning with a college "fast-food circle" where he and his pals munched burgers and speculated about the Kennedy assassination. The middle section, in which Aoyagi finds temporary refuge in a rusty beater of a car, sags a bit — but lays the groundwork for the big, all-is- revealed climax.
This climax will be familiar to fans of "Fish Story," in which the myriad plot threads tie together for five final minutes of cinematic satori. But if the previous film ended in a cathartic rush of revelation and relief, "Golden Slumber" concludes with a different feeling. All I'll say is I wasn't expecting it — but somehow I knew it was there all along.
Just as Paul McCartney knew "a way to get back homeward."
Selected as the closing film of the upcoming Berlin Film Festival, "Ototo" ("Younger Brother") is Yoji Yamada's first contemporary drama in a decade, since "Jugo-sai Gakko 4" ("A Class to Remember 4: Fifteen," 2000). In that time Yamada's image has changed from money-spinning maker of the hit "Tora-san" series (48 altogether from 1969 to 1996) to internationally celebrated auteur, whose many honors include an Oscar nomination for the period drama "Tasogare Seibei" ("Twilight Samurai," 2002).
"Ototo" reunites Sayuri Yoshinaga and Tsurube Shofukutei, who played a long-suffering mother and a scampish uncle, respectively, in Yamada's World War II drama "Kabei" ("Kabei: Our Mother," 2008).
This time, Yoshinaga is Ginko, the proprietor of a small drug store in Tokyo and mother to Koharu (Yu Aoi), a chipper, sweet-tempered girl who is engaged to be married to a young doctor.
All goes swimmingly until the day of the wedding, when Tetsuro (Shofukutei), Ginko's ne'er-do-well younger brother, appears. A failed actor and a drunk, Tetsuro has been cast out of the family for various offenses — and shows why by turning the reception into a rowdy farce.
This should be the end, but it isn't because Ginko has been covering for Tetsuro all his life. When his ex-lover comes begging for money, she has to give and when he falls ill with cancer in Osaka, she has to go.
Good characters in Japanese melodramas are forever making similar sacrifices with noble grimaces and shining eyes, as the violins swell. Ginko, however, is no cardboard saint, but an ordinary woman who is deeply pained by the waste Tetsuro has made of his life — and can't forget the hardships they endured together as children.
Yamada strips this story to its essentials, with no showy camera moves, syrupy music or overwrought acting. Instead he keeps the camera at a respectful, but observant, middle distance, steadily building to the moments when pretenses fall away and the truth emerges. Some of those moments are immensely sad and even terrifying, but some are beautiful as well.
Now well into his fifth decade as a director, Yamada says exactly what he wants to say with a master's sureness, finesse and economy.
Many Japanese directors try to jerk tears — it's among the surest routes to box office success here. But Yamada is one of the few who can touch the heart — and he's seldom done it better than in "Ototo."