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Friday, March 26, 2010

'Konchu Tantei Yoshida Yoshimi (Insect Detective yoshimi yoshida)'

'Insect Detective' takes Japan's bug obsession to the extreme

A lot of kids go through a bug phase, when dragonflies, fireflies and butterflies seem absolutely fascinating. But the Japanese carry bug love to heights unknown to the underage ant farmers of my native Ohio, a love that puzzled me when I first came here, since about the only bugs I normally encountered in Tokyo were cockroaches, spiders and mosquitoes.

Konchu Tantei Yoshida Yoshimi (Insect Detective yoshimi yoshida) Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Blood ties: Ewan McGregor and Colin Farrell star as brothers drawn together in a murder plot in "Cassandra's Dream." 2007 WOLVERINE PRODUCTIONS LIMITED.

Director: Sakichi Sato
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens April 3, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But once I ventured to the countryside, I discovered that giant stag beetles, and other armor-plated, oversize insects Japanese kids obsess about, actually exist outside a pet-shop case. The creative inspiration for everything from samurai armor to tokusatsu (special-effects TV show) monsters suddenly became clear.

Based on Aozora Daichi's popular gag manga in "Morning" magazine, Sakichi Sato's comedy "Konchu Tantei Yoshida Yoshimi" (Insect Detective Yoshimi Yoshida) kids this bug obsession, while enthusiastically embracing it. In particular, the closeups of its various insect "characters," with their gorgeous color and detail, wouldn't be out of place in a Discovery Channel documentary. Also, when the bugs "talk," their mandibles really move in a semblance of speech, minus computer-generated assists. Creepy, but funny.

The film begins five years after an explosion wipes out Shinjuku, leaving the ruins of Tokyo City Hall looming over the landscape like a remnant from a lost civilization. Still living in the neighborhood is one Yoshimi Yoshida (Sho Aikawa), a chap in a Sherlock- Holmes-like hunting cap and flowing trench coat who has a unique talent: he can talk with insects. Not only that, Yoshida serves the bug community as a private detective, snooping on cheating spouses and finding missing critters.

His "assistants" are a parrot, Pitan, and dog, Mugi, who are about as smart as the average third grader. That's about the IQ needed for most insect detective work, until a female human client asks him to search for a certain stink bug — and calls Yoshida "Tanaka."

"Tanaka," we learn, was a police detective who was on the trail of the Shinjuku bomber when all hell broke loose. The client, Mari Onahama (Sayuri Oyamada), is a cop herself and immediately realizes that Yoshida and Tanaka are one and the same: The PI is a missing person. Not long after, Yoshida/Tanaka encounters another sort of bug detective — a sleuthing jewel beetle, who tells him the true, mind-blowing story.

If this sounds profoundly silly, it is; as was Sato's previous film, "Tokyo Zombie" (2005), in which Aikawa and Tadanobu Asano played goofy warehouse workers who find themselves fleeing from zombies born in a toxic waste dump. But there is also a satirical subtext; just as "Tokyo Zombie" skewered Japan's self-destructive consumerism, "Konchu Tantei" takes a swing at everything from idiot terrorists to easily manipulated politicians. But like Takashi Miike, whose brilliantly bizarre films "Gozu" (Gokydo Kyofu Daigekijo, 2003) and "Ichi the Killer" (Koroshiya 1, 2001) he scripted, Sato cares more about creative freedom, including the freedom to take total leave of reality, than politics, ideology — or the delicate sensibilities of his audience. One animated scene, which unfolds in a certain politician's stomach, is reminiscent of Miike at his more nausea-inducing.

Aikawa, dubbed "the emperor of OV (original video)" for his countless roles as tough, cool cops and criminals in the straight-to-video films of Miike and others, is not slumming in "Konchu Tantei" so much as releasing his inner insect nerd. In fact, Aikawa initiated the project after reading the comic and seeing that it coincided with his own entomological interests. (When I spoke with Aikawa about screening the film at an Italian festival and opined that Italians might think stag beetles strange, he told me, authoritatively, that the bug could be found around the world, Europe included.)

At the same time, he is still Sho Aikawa, who unleashes his distinctive glare or swishes his overcoat with a trademark flourish, as though to show us there's more to this oddball character than meets the eye — and remind us who is playing him.

Aikawa and Sato have mellowed since their collaborations with Miike would send patrons reeling from the theaters. I wouldn't call "Konchu Tantei" child friendly — unless the child has an absurdist sense of humor — but it's also not what anyone would call cutting-edge.

Instead, it's a nice mental vacation from everyday logic, especially if your idea of relaxation is watching two beetles having sex — or Aikawa exchanging one-liners with a talking parrot.


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