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Friday, Oct. 1, 2010

'Nanase Futatabi: The Movie (Nanase Again)'

Psychic superheroine props up Japan's answer to 'Twilight' (barely)


Some genres of Japanese movies are hard to "place" for Westerners, since they have no precise Hollywood equivalent. The ero guro (erotic and grotesque) genre, for example, is often lumped into the horror category by overseas festivals and DVD distributors, but the films are usually less about jack-in-the-box scares than forbidden sexual desires, set in a borderland between dream and reality.

Nanase Futatabi: The Movie (Nanase Again) Rating: (2 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Invasion of privacy: Gorgeous mind-reader Nanase (Sei Ashina) — she heard you think that, pervert. © 2010 "NANASE FUTABI" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Kazuya Konaka
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 2, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Based on the second of three "Nanase" novels by Yasutaka Tsutsui, Kazuya Konaka's "Nanase Futatabi: The Movie (Nanase Again)" would seem to be straight-ahead sci-fi. The mind-reading heroine, Nanase (Sei Ashina), joins with similarly psychically gifted companions to battle a mysterious organization that wants to wipe their kind off the face of the Earth.

The film, though, has the look and feel of a broodingly romantic ad for, depending on the scene, women's fashion, makeup or shampoo. Ashina, who starred in the ill-fated international coproduction "Silk," as well as the underrated Japanese comedy "Kazura" ("Wig"), is impeccably put together, and she is often posed against the dramatic natural beauty of Hokkaido. Watching the play of light and shadow on those perfect cheekbones and the wind gently tossing that flawlessly styled hair, I half expected to see a product logo flash on the screen.

The audience for the film, I began to realize, is not nerdy male SF fans but young women who will appreciate not only the glamour shots and gothic atmospherics but the dishy guys around the heroine, including baby-faced teenager Ryo (Kei Tanaka), who can foretell the future, and rugged African-American Henry (Dante Carver), who can use telekinesis to send bodies flying. Think of a movie for "Twilight" fans but with psychics instead of vampires.

Nanase lives, in unusual circumstances that the story only later explains, in a house on a Hokkaido lake with Henry, who is not her boyfriend, and Norio (Yuki Imai), a 7-year-old telepath who is not her son. Soon after returning from a profitable tour of foreign casinos, she meets a flighty, freewheeling, nonpsychic friend (Ai Maeda) — and both narrowly escape a deadly attack.

Then Nanase receives a call from Ryo, a psychic acquaintance, who warns her of more danger ahead. (He happens to be madly in love with her but keeps his distance, since he hates to have his mind read.) Seeking more supranormal help, she calls on another friend, Fujiko (Eriko Sato), who works at a local aquarium — and has become unstuck in time.

But the attackers, including a black-capped assassin (Masahiko Kawahara) and his coldly calculating boss (Eisaku Yoshida), are hot on their trail, as is a rumpled, grandfatherly detective (Sei Hiraizumi) investigating strange goings-on in the neighborhood.

Compared with the CG extravaganzas of Hollywood, the effects in "Nanase" are retro, if at times evocative (as when Nanase reads minds — and ghostly forms of kanji characters flutter above her head). Also, the film's psychics look less than superpowered when matched against Hollywood's comic-book heroes and their stupendous deeds. When Henry scrunched up his face prior to zapping an opponent with his mind waves, I was thinking that the Fantastic Four would have flattened him before his first forehead wrinkle.

Perhaps the film's lost-in-a-time-warp feel was inevitable: Tsutsui wrote the "Nanase" novels in the 1970s, when their New Age thrills were relatively fresh. Updating them for today's more CG-savvy (or jaded) audiences was never going to be easy. But Konaka, who directed several theatrical installments of the "Ultraman" franchise, as well as episodes in the "Keitai Keiji" ("Cell Phone Detective") TV series, opts for overdone stylistics and operatic theatrics that sink the material rather than save it. Even poor orphaned Norio ends up looking less childish than trollish.

Fans of Ashina may not be disappointed, since her every scene is a love letter to her finely chiseled beauty, but she also plays Nanase at nearly the same pitch throughout: cool, collected and detached, as though she belonged to a superior if nobly intentioned race. I liked her better in "Kazura," in which her only psychic ability was sussing that her boyfriend wore a wig — and she looked normally, if not flawlessly, human.


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