Tue Dec 7 23:26:08 EST 1999
In response to Joel Cohn's query, here's my Japan Time review of Hakuchi:
By Mark Schilling
"Hakuchi -- The Innocent" opens with an extraordinary image: a blackened
ruin of a cityscape, like Hiroshima after the atomic bombing, with stunned
survivors sifting listlessly through the rubble and an abandoned child
crying from fright and pain. Then, in the midst of this destruction, we see
-- a fashion shoot, complete with billowing, brightly colored gowns,
preening models and black-clad cameramen clicking off a blur of shots. The
contrast between the Japans of 1945 and 1999 is stunning -- and illusory.
What we are seeing is director Macoto Tezka's vision of a future in which
war is unceasing and the gap between the ravaged masses and the media
elites who drug them with televised dreams is as wide as that between the
proles and the Party in George Orwell's "1984."
The inspiration for this vision, however, is less Orwell's dark utopian
masterpiece than the work of Tezka's father, the manga artist Osamu
Tezuka, and the novel "Hakuchi" by Ango Sakaguchi. The novel provided the
basis for the story of a TV production assistant (Tadanobu Asano) who
becomes an unwilling object of revulsion and fascination for a malicious,
but ravishing, TV idol, while feeling an uneasy attraction for the
feeble-minded, if pure-hearted, wife of a rich, reclusive neighbor.
But the extravagance of the imagery, as well as the grandiosity of the
themes (the nature of good and evil, the meaning of existence in a world
without values) also derives from the manga of the elder Tezuka, who took
what was considered a low amusement for children and shaped it into a
medium capable of expressing the whole range of human emotion and thought.
At the same time this "god of manga" was guilty of Baroque excess and windy
This tendency is evident in "Hakuchi," which falls, "Blade Runner"-like,
in love with its own decadently dazzling set designs, while trying mightily
to impress with the mysterioso depths of its story and the fashionable
opaqueness of its characters. But for all its pretensions, both literary
and cinematic, the film is onto something about the changes this country
has undergone in the past half century. Like Ridley Scott's fantasy of a
future Los Angeles as a smoky multicultural hell, "Hakuchi" shows us the
moral dimensions of the present in a funhouse mirror whose distortions
have the ring of truth.
Again like his British sempai, Tezka can create images that strikes us as
fresh and right, even as they exude degenerate glamour or slithers with
stark horror. But he also has a literary bent that makes "Hakuchi" play, in
places, like an illustrated novel reading.
The hero is Izawa (Asano), the aforementioned production assistant, who
lives in a slum filled with generically colorful postwar characters, from
lavisiously grinning prostitutes to beady-eyed hustlers. Though quiet and
mild-mannered on the surface, Izawa has the mind of a writer, incessantly
observing and describing, in lengthy voice-overs, the foibles of his
neighbors and coworkers. He is hard to fool, this Izawa, but he also finds
it difficult to act. When his boss (Yoshio Harada), a strutting pocket
tyrant who produces the highest-rated show in the country, rages at him for
his bad attitude and ends by knocking him to the floor, Izawa silently
endures. When the wife of his landlord (Kyoko Enami), a middle-aged
temptress in kimono, tries to seduce him, he affects indifference.
Like so many people who live largely inside their heads, Izawa is
something of an innocent, despite his veneer of stoic worldliness. When the
star of the show -- the candy-voiced, acid-tongued Ginga (Reika Hashimoto)
-- takes a interest in him, while coolly stripping away his mask of
silence, he fumbles for a response. Even when she slices his ear in a
gesture of cruelty and contempt, he can't react, other than to cling,
stubbornly, to a job he has come to hate. He is clearly out of his depth,
this Candide in a corrupt media empire, but he continues to nurture a dream
of creating something personal and real.
He meets Sayo (Miyako Koda), the Hakuchi (idiot) of the title -- who
makes up in intensity of feeling what she lacks in intellect. Izawa finds
himself attracted to this woman with the look of a bewildered mime. She
lets him know that she is attracted to him as well -- and not only
spiritually. But while these two lost souls slowly find each other, the
world around them is crumbling into the insanity of total war.
Passive heroes are common enough in modern literature, but as main
characters in films they can become black holes, sucking the vitality out
of everything around them. Playing Izawa, Tadanobu Asano is not a black
hole -- this heavy-lidded darling of the indie film scene can be expressive
and even explosive -- but he spends a lot of on-screen time in a low-energy
state, sketching in his performance with the least possible effort. This
quiet minimalism presents an effective contrast to the bombastic and
self-involved extroverts around him, but two-and-a-half hours of it is far
too much. Watching Asano act with the all the fire of a Gen X kid enduring
a dull lecture from a loud teacher, I began to drift into a low-energy
state myself -- one called unconsciousness.
But though "Hakuchi"'s dark future look might have been created by a
fascistic fashion designer, its essential world view seems depressingly
possible. High in their Media Tower, its ruling elites have become
supremely contemptuous of the masses they ostensibly serve. But with their
only god the ratings, they have become the slaves of those masses, insecure
on their thrones. With their only principles self gratification and self
advancement, they have become monstrous and absurd. Like Orwell, Tezka
finds fugitive hope in the proles, who have at least managed to retain
their humanity, in various eccentric forms. Like Dostoyevsky, who also
wrote a novel called "The Idiot," he finds purity in the simple of heart
and mind, but can offer no promise of easy salvation -- only the trials by
fire called love and war. His is a very millennial movie indeed.
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