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Friday, Feb. 5, 2010

'Kazura'/'Boys on the Run'

Losers hit jackpot in comedy stakes


The odds of two brilliant Japanese comedies opening the same day are high but not impossible, somewhat like the odds of the same director (James Cameron) making two all-time worldwide box-office hits ("Titanic" and that other film about blue aliens).

Kazura Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Game for a laugh: Kazuki Otake and Masakazu Mimura in "Kazura" © 2010 "KAZURA" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Renpei Tsukamoto
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Feb. 5, 2010)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Both "Kazura" and "Boys on the Run" open Saturday and both are good, if in quite different ways. If you're a balding, lonely, middle-aged male, "Kazura" is more likely to hit home; if you're nerdy, clueless and dateless, it should be "Boys on the Run." If you're all of the above, get a life, brother, not a movie ticket.

Directed by Renpei Tsukamoto, from an essay collection by Shinya Kobayashi, "Kazura" could have easily become a one-joke comedy that plays like a stick of gum: Tasty start, flavorless finish. But Tsukamoto, a TV director whose credits include the late-night cult favorite "Jiko Keisatsu" ("Statute of Limitations Cop"), builds on his slight premise like a standup comic constructing a castle of laughter out of thin air — or rather sharp observations about everyday embarrassments.

His hero is Moriyama (Masakazu Mimura), a salaryman employed by a home builder in the provinces who is transferred to Tokyo to work on a big project. Seeing this as a chance to change his image — particularly his thinning pate — he visits various wig/hair- replacement salons in the big city, where he is quoted outrageous prices for dubious products.

Then he runs across a series of ads (or rather Post-its stuck on telephone poles) leading to a cluttered, eccentrically decorated shop run by one Owada (Kazuki Otake), a mysterious chap wearing huge shades and a wig that crowns his head like a black mushroom on a stalk. But Owada's rock-bottom price and promised delivery date — tomorrow — open Moriyama's wallet. Owada proves to be as good as his word, despite a baffling production process that involves a microwave oven, and Moriyama is soon the satisfied owner of a new rug.

Not for long, though, since he is terrified that he will be unmasked (or rather unwigged) in front of his new coworkers, especially his lovely assistant, Ryoko (Sei Asina). Not to fear — Owada is always there with a helping hand or even a replacement wig. And, of course, a bill.

Mimura and Otake, a comedy team in real life (if you consider Japanese variety shows real life) are totally in sync as needy customer and all-wise wigmaker, without going over the top in approved variety show fashion. Instead they ground their comedy in real-life anxieties — while taking the occasional bizarre imaginative flight.

The hero of Daisuke Miura's "Boys on the Run" is even more of a sad sack. Rank-and-file salesman Tanishi (Kazunobu Mineta) spends his days filling vending machines with trinkets, masturbating to porn videos and obsessing on Chiharu (Mei Kurokawa), a pretty coworker. A virgin of 29, still living at home with Mom and Dad, Tanishi knows he is a big zero.

Boys on the Run Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
MOVIES
Kazunobu Mineta in "Boys on the Run" © 2010 HANAZAWA KENGO/"BOYS ON THE RUN" SEISAKU IINKAI © HANAZAWA KENGO/SHOGAKUKAN

Director: Daisuke Miura
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Feb. 5, 2010)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But within this simpering, google-eyed dweeb beats the heart of a lover and even a fighter. When a rival salesman, the smooth, handsome, unprincipled Aoyama (Ryuhei Matsuda), snatches Chiharu away from him (incredibly, she has started to reciprocate his interest), Tanishi is stirred to frustration — and finally rage. But before he can deliver a promised thrashing to Aoyama, he has to train, since he has never thrown a punch in anger in his life. Cue the "Rocky" theme . . .

Based on a comic by Kengo Hanazawa, "Boys on the Run" is in the all-but-exhausted genre of slacker comedy, but Miura, a theater director turned indie filmmaker, has a unique comic mind.

His style is on the dry, understated side (after Tanishi's trainer, an alcoholic, senior salesman, gives him pointers on his boxing stance, he leaves the poor mope standing frozen, like a department store dummy, while he sips his beer), but he also revels in down-and-dirty realism, from sleazy sex to brutal punchups, while rejecting any hints of softness or sentimentality. A punk rocker off-screen (his band Ging Nang Boyz supplies the closing song), Kazunobu Mineta implicitly understands this side of Miura, while keeping the audience on Tanishi's side. We laugh at him and his sorry situation with sympathy, not contempt. Miura also has his own sense of timing, delivering his punch lines and payoffs at odd moments and angles — and getting bigger laughs as a result. The ending is no exception. You don't see it coming, but Miura has been setting it up from scene one. It's right, it's satisfying — and it's not "Rocky" in the least. It's "Boys on the Run."


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