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The Sun Also Rises 

The newest offerings from Japan's old masters and young upstarts

Wednesday, Apr 18 2001

I can't believe I'm reviewing films by such old-school masters as Ichikawa Kon and Shinoda Masahiro in a piece about the latest Japanese offerings at the San Francisco International Film Festival, but it's a tribute to these (still active) filmmakers' longevity that their works can be judged alongside those by younger directors. If the comparisons yield a mixed showing of fresh and stale, that's natural -- let the viewer sort 'em out.

Rebirth and the crafting of new lives are themes in the best of them this year. In the women's pro wrestling documentary Gaea Girls, the reigning champion gives her trainee a series of nasty slaps to her bloodied face to prepare her for her debut, saying, "Whether you are reborn is up to you." The dowdy heroine of Sakamoto Junji's Face (Sakamoto also directed Knockout) is terrified of being reborn after years of sullen obedience behind a sewing machine, but she forces the issue by strangling her beautiful sister, taking advantage of the Kobe earthquake to obscure her tracks, and finding a new life -- several new lives -- as a many-faced fugitive one step ahead of the law. Both films celebrate the transformation of wimpy, unassertive women into formidable engines of survival and will, giving them the last laugh.

Men, however, don't fare so well in the latest offerings. Not Forgotten, promising to show how Pacific War veterans react to 21st-century Japan, gets bogged down in a sentimental revenge plot that wastes an opportunity to say more about Japan's corporate culture, in which life transformation takes a sinister turn.

Veteran director Ichikawa Kon's Dora-Heita is also a disappointment that could use some new life of its own. Because of its pedigreed script (written in 1969 by four major Japanese postwar directors: Kurosawa, Kobayashi, Kinoshita, and Ichikawa), the film emphasizes dialogue and personalities. But the Tokugawa-era plot, about a disreputable libertine who uses unorthodox means to clean up a district mired in crime and corruption -- sound familiar? -- is old and dated and the execution pallid and tired (including the simplistic sword-fight sequences). Yakusho Koji looks worn and uncharismatic in a topknot -- he should stick to Western suits. Several scenes recall moments from Kurosawa masterworks like Yojimbo and Sanjuro, and the larger-than-life charm of the late Mifune Toshiro is just enough to reflect poorly on the present production. Watch for an early, dynamic cameo by Kishida Kyoko, the original Woman in the Dunes.

For something far better from 1969, savor the black-and-white gorgeousness of Shinoda Masahiro's Double Suicide, a live-action adaptation of a major Chikamatsu domestic-tragedy bunraku (puppet play), chosen by directors Scott McGehee and David Siegel (The Deep End) for the festival's "Indelible Images" program. If we ever have an Iwashita Shima tribute, this film would be the centerpiece, in which the great actor (and Shinoda's wife) plays dual roles as the plain missus and the flamboyant mistress of the pleasure quarters that spell downfall for the hapless romantic Jihei, a true puppet of destiny.

Gaea Girls: Friday, April 20, 10:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Tuesday, May 1, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Wednesday, May 2, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Face: Saturday, April 21, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 23, 9:15 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Friday, April 27, 9:30 p.m., Pacific Film Archive

Not Forgotten: Friday, April 27, 12:45 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Saturday, April 28, 6:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Sunday, April 29, 1 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Dora-Heita: Friday, April 20, 9:15 p.m., Pacific Film Archive; Sunday, April 22, 7 p.m., AMC Kabuki; Monday, April 23, 3:30 p.m., AMC Kabuki

Double Suicide: Monday, April 23, 9:15 p.m., Castro

About The Author

Frako Loden


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