Tuesday, December 01, 2009

New Japanese Cinema: Vacation, The Magic Hour

Haruka Ayase made four feature films in 2008. Somehow, between Fantasia and today, all four have found me at one place or another. Now, I'm probably in the 99th percentile for "Japanese films seen by Americans" during a given year, but that seems like rather a lot.

That provided me with a good laugh when her name showed up in the credits for The Magic Hour, which turned out to be a good sign. I actually also went to see Cyborg She the next afternoon, having loved it at Fantasia. I was a little disappointed to see it playing on video, especially since (I think) that's how I saw it in Montreal. I still really liked it, but was bummed that I didn't get to see it on film.

I also missed out on the previous weekend's movies because I was stupid and didn't know when to get off the #47 bus for the MFA. It wasn't a huge loss - Big Man Japan isn't hard to find and I have a Fantasia screener for Crime or Punishment?, but given a choice of spending a Saturday afternoon screwing around with the MBTA or seeing funny Japanese movies...

(Note: Vacation isn't funny. I've been talking about the comedies, so don't get reading whiplash heading to the next paragraph.)

Kyûka (Vacation)

* * * * (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2009 at the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (New Japanese Cinema)

Toru Hirai (Kaoru Kobayashi) is dragging. He falls asleep while riding the train with his fiancée Mika (Nene Otsuka) and her son Tatsuya (Shusei Uto), but you don't need that to see it. He's middle aged, but it's tough to tell whether he's deep into it or just looking old before his time. The days are just grinding by.

If that's true for Toru, though, it's a hundred times more the case for Shinichi Kaneda (Hidetoshi Nishijima). Kaneda is locked away in the prison where Toru works as a guard, on death row in fact. He does not cause any trouble, and there are signs he feels remorse. It doesn't register with him when his lawyer says he may have grounds for an appeal; it's just a bit of noise to the background of his days of solitude and carefully supervised exercise. He doesn't know, but his execution has been authorized for a Friday in November - the day before Toru's and Mika's wedding. A guard who takes the most disturbing job in the execution - "supporting" the hanged prisoner after he drops through the floor - will get the next week off, but it's not really the sort of experience one would like casting a shadow on one's honeymoon.

The parallels between the two characters are obvious; Vacation is a film about people just marking time as they live their lives. For some, like Kaneda, it's involuntary. Toru, on the other hand, is like too many of us, repeating days without getting joy out of them. It's mentioned that his last vacation was spent on his mother's funeral, and at times his engagement to Mika seems perfunctory at best. They often seem to barely know each other; foreigners like myself may watch their interactions and wonder whether arranged marriages are still common in Japan or whether there is simply enough social pressure brought to bear on widows and other singletons over a certain age that marriages might as well be arranged.

That sort of dispassionate look at Toru's circumstances might indicate him as a man to be shown pity or contempt, but Karou Kobayashi makes him more interesting than that. The script doesn't reveal hidden depths to Toru, but Kobayashi does not have him walk around as bored or hollow. He's reserved but engaged, perhaps too patient for his own good. Our feelings toward him are generally positive, and although he may not be the ideal prison guard, we measure all the others we see against him . His scenes with young Shusei Uto are great; the kid is not ready to accept a new father, and the few words that pass between Toru and Tatsuya show a boy not looking to accept a new father figure and a man who has mastered the art of being present but not forcing himself into another's life. That's maybe not the best basis for a relationship, and we seldom see exactly how things between Toru and Mika work. Nene Otsuka makes Mika appealing, and the decision to have her not outwardly desperate or appearing pressured is refreshing.

As good as the other performers are, though, and as much as this story is at its heart about Toru, it would be hard for Hidetoshi Nishijima's Kaneda not to steal a large portion of the show. Part of is that we learn just enough about him to temper any instinctive hatred we might have for a murderer on death row (assumed to be the worst of the worst); but the trick is that even once we've learned that, Nishijima does not give many hints that Kaneda is either angry at his fate or feels that it is right. We see a man where the combination of guilt and crushing routine have drained most reservoirs of personality or self away. And then, as he realizes that the end is coming, we see a truly spectacular blind panic as he realizes that he is not all gone, but that the rest will be taken away soon. It's as convincing a display of raw terror as you'll see on screen.

He gets a little help there from director Haime Kadoi. Kadoi does a great job throughout (from a script by Dai Sako and a novel by Akira Yoshimura), but the way he and cinematographer Yukihiro Okimura shoot Kaneda is particularly fascinating. From many angles, Kaneda's cell looks like a more cramped than average Tokyo studio apartment. It looks normal until we see how restrictive it is, when the doors open up and the guards stand just outside. That scenario is repeated just enough that we see just how repetitive his life must be, although not in such a way that it's obvious that Kadoi is trying to make that point. The spaces Toru inhabits are also often strangely spartan - there's something a little cold about the places where Toru and Mika plan and hold their wedding reception, especially. It's all the more remarkable that some spaces seem to turn much more friendly as Toru and Mika draw closer.

There's something a little bit inspiring about that. As much as opening up is shown as dangerous at several points during Vacation, it's also the thing that can give Toru's life something beyond honor and usefulness.

Also at HBS.

Za majikku awâ (The Magic Hour)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 28 November 2009 at the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (New Japanese Cinema)

Let's face it: The whole deal with gangs and movies intersecting in such a way as to cause hilarious, self-referential misunderstanding is pretty darn played out. I groaned a little just reading the description for The Magic Hour, seeing that it would be working that territory. We've seen it all before, or at least it seems that way. I don't know if Koki Mitani has exactly found a new angle on it, but he's certainly found indications that there's a little life at this particular genre crossroads yet.

The film opens in classic style, as a carload full of goons bursts into the Minato Hotel, where club manager Bingo (Satoshi Sumabuki) is making time with the Boss's girlfriend Mari (Eri Fukatsu). In no time flat, Bingo and Mari are being fitted for cement shoes, but Bingo overhears the gangsters talking about trying to locate a mysterious assassin, Della Togashi. Saying he can find the killer gains him a five-day reprieve, but Bingo has no idea where to look. Fortunately, nobody knows what Togashi looks like, so Bingo hits upon the idea of hiring Taiki Murata (Koichi Sato), an actor with the right look but a career spent more in stunt work than acting, and telling him that he's playing hitman Della Togashi in a mostly-improvised movie. Employees Natsuko (Haruka Ayase) and Takashi (Goro Ibuki) help sell the illusion, which works a bit too well - Boss Tessio (Toshiyuki Nishida) wants to hire him.

This is a plot that generally requires at least one character to not be so bright, and for the most part, that falls to Koichi Sato's Murata. Murata is not a great thespian, but Sato plays him as a specific type of bad actor: A little too well-aware of where the camera is (or should be), trying to pick up more screen time by impressing the director with what he brings to the table, even though it's not all that great. It works in part because Murata is actually competent at some things, so when we watch him misinterpret what's going on at every step, he never actually does something foolish enough that we find it impossible for him not to get caught out, but it's funny because it is so ridiculous.

Even with that, Mitani's script does rely heavily on everything working out just right: Tessio or his lieutenant Kurokawa (Susumu Terajima) will almost always say or do something that works perfectly as a lead-in for Murata, nobody will get hit by a stray bullet and kill the mood, etc. Mitani manages this by doing a couple of things. First, and most important, he almost never asks the audience to trust him on something without giving some sort of immediate payoff: A moment which requires suspension of disbelief will lead to a joke right away, generally with the promise of more funny stuff to come.

Second, he finds little ways to remind us that we're watching a movie, and it doesn't have to be real, letting us in on the joke. The Toho logo leads to the first scene via the classic opening iris, and from the opening shots, we might almost suspect that The Magic Hour is a period piece. We're told that its harbor town setting of Sucago is often used for film shoots because it still looks like its from another time, and even when we see characters flipping open cell phones, the movie still has that screwball ambiance. Mitani zips us from one funny scenario to another quickly, and doesn't overburden us by trying to give every single character a subplot. I wouldn't be shocked if there was a cut at one point where Haruka Ayase's Natsuko had a crush on Bingo (and you can write how it goes from there), but it wouldn't make things any funnier, so it's gone.

And that's one of the sure signs of a good comedy - there are few cast members getting notable screen time without being funny. Sato gets a lot of the big laughs, of course, but Tumabuki is right there with him, adding youthful innocence and exuberance to Bingo's panic as the situation quickly becomes too much to control. Nishida is dryly witty as Tessio, giving deadpan responses to Murata's craziness without giving the game away. Eri Fukatsu is deliciously self-centered as Mari, and Goro Ibuki steals almost every scene he's in with the big-lug look on his face and the odd aptitude for pulling off this particular scheme. Ditto Keiko Toda as the older and wiser woman who seems to really run the hotel.

All this breaking down why The Magic Hour worked for me, though, gets away from the most important thing: It made me laugh, a lot. It's an amiable, goofy movie, but one with plenty of perfectly timed jokes. It's just right, which is what I want a comedy to be.

Also at HBS.

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