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Friday, June 03, 2011
Between the gutter and the stars, a shocking debt
'I liked almost anybody that made you realize who in the devil was making the picture," Howard Hawks famously told fellow director Peter Bogdanovich in the 1960s. By that criteria, Hawks would have liked Ryuichi Hiroki, one of the most distinctive Japanese directors now working.
Unlike Takashi Miike or Tetsuya Nakashima, two other contenders for the "most distinctive" title, Hiroki does not trumpet his presence with bold stylistic flourishes (or as sometimes in Miike's case, brazen assaults); his approach is more subtle and indirect. His camera seems to float and hover discreetly, so as not to disturb the ambiance of an intimate scene.
At the same time, Hiroki is no classicist, trying to re-create the look of Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse and other Golden Age masters. As a veteran of the pinku (soft porn) film business, he has none of an earlier era's (often censor-enforced) shyness about sex. Instead, he is a mix of sensualist and psychologist, who can film a bed scene hotly while stripping his characters' souls as bare as their skins.
Hiroki draws the best from his actresses especially, while demanding a lot from them. But even in their rawest emotional moments, with tears streaming down their faces and their cheeks as red as lobsters, he brings out their inner beauty. Shinobu Terajima in "Vibrator" (2003), Yu Aoi in 2010's "Raiou (The Lightening Tree)" and now Anne Suzuki in his new film, "Keibetsu (Egoist)," have all never looked — or performed — better on screen.
Suzuki plays Machiko, a pole dancer at a Kabukicho club who becomes instantly enamored of Kazu (Kengo Kora), a gaunt, fierce-eyed young gambler who dashes off with her one night when the club is trashed by gangsters. (Kazu is in fact one of the trashers, a job forced on him by a gang boss played by Jun Murakami in return for erasing a gambling debt.)
This story of young lovers on the run, based on a novel by the late Kenji Nakagami (1946-1992), is a movie staple. As filmed by Hiroki, the Kabukicho scenes have a contemporary, borderless, dangerous feel, but once the action shifts to Nakagami's hometown of Shingu, Wakayama Prefecture, the atmosphere (and accents) change. We are in the familiar territory of the Japanese family drama, where ancient crimes and animosities fester, but ties are not easily broken.
By returning to his home in the countryside, Kazu hopes to escape his old life and start a new one with Machiko. Having accepted Kazu's invitation to flee, while not knowing where or why, Machiko is at a loss at first, especially when Kazu's well-off, short-fused father (Kaoru Kobayashi) all but turns them away at the door. She and Kazu move to a nearby apartment and Kazu finds a job as a deliveryman for his uncle (Tomorowo Taguchi), the testy owner of a liquor store, while she tries to fit in with Kazu's punk friends.
Despite their attempts at normality, Kazu's family sees him as a black sheep and Machiko as Tokyo trash. They get a friendly reception from an elderly, eccentric cafe proprietress (Midori Mako), who was the lover of Kazu's grandfather, but it all starts to go wrong, especially after Kazu foolishly borrows a large sum of money from a louche, implacable loan shark (Nao Omori). His dream is to marry Machiko and live happily ever after, but his reality becomes a debtor's hell, with Machiko as human collateral.
Kora, who got his big-screen break playing a young killer in Hiroki's "M" (2007), is the ideal choice as the wild, wounded Kazu: He's got the lean, piercing look of a starving, soulful, world-defying wolf. What woman could resist those charms?
Suzuki, who was starring in films while barely in her teens (2002's "Returner," 2004's "Hana and Alice"), has seen her career stall in recent years. But she delivers everything Hiroki asks for and more — the consummate pro. Though her Machiko has a sex worker's hard shell, she is intelligently alive to everything around her, from Kazu's burning sincerity to the chill at his big family home. At the same time, she responds to Kazu's outbursts of passion and anger with fires of her own. Theirs is a match of equals.
In its third act, "Egoist" lingers overly long on a tough-guy battle of wills, but the bravado ending rises to the heights of greatness. I won't explain why for fear of giving too much away, except to say that Suzuki is magnificent and that Hiroki indelibly captures her ultimate moment of vulnerability — and beauty.