Review: Jubaku

Mark Schilling schill
Mon Sep 27 22:32:45 EDT 1999

Kinyu Fushoku Retto: Jubaku (Jubaku)
by Mark Schilling

Back in the 1980s Juzo Itami made social satires that were funny, incisive
looks at topics that, in the newspapers, were the stuff of back page
investigative features. Not the machinations of the Ministry of Finance,
but the petty scams of tax cheats. With "Odoru Daisosasen" (Bayside
Shakedown), last year's monster hit that examined the inner workings of the
Japanese police, Japanese filmmakers moved toward the front page. Now we
have Masato Harada's "Kinyu Fushoku Retto: Jubaku" (Jubaku), which is is
not only on the front page but above the fold, dealing with nothing less
than the iron triangle of businessmen, bureaucracts and gangsters that have
dominated the history of postwar
	With a plot that reads like a multipart Nihon Keizai Shimbun series, the
film risks being flattened into the cinematic equivalent of good, gray
journalese: more plodding facts and earnest editorial than gripping drama.
One imagines two hours of dark-suited men looking grim. 
	Harada, the director of two films ("Painted Desert" and "Eiko to Kyoki")
set in the United States, has given "Jubaku" a visual dynamism and
narrative pace that is very Hollywood, while respecting the integrity of a
story that, in the density and complexity of its relationships, is very
Japanese. True, he hypes the material, filming the various scoops, arrests
and investigations as though the fate of the country hangs in the balance
(i.e., the business pages as "Die Hard"), but his approach is infinitely
more entertaining than the usual alternative (i.e., the business pages as
dull samurai drama). 	
	Also, though the film has dozens of speaking parts, Harada and his three
scriptwriters (including Ryo Takasugi, who also wrote the two novels on
which the film is based), bring the main characters, as well as many of the
minor ones, into sharp, realistic relief. They are, in the main, people
very much like ones we know, not cardboard figures cut to fit the
requirements of the plot. There are some who annoy, such as Miho Wada as an
anchor for the Bloomberg television news service, who swaggers around
looking cool and superior, but its main characters are mostly sympathetic
types who act from human impulses (including ignoble ones) not according to
a corporate manual. While being unsparing and unsentimental in its
portrayal of institutional crime and corruption in modern Japan, "Jubaku"
offers a group portrait considerably more attractive that the usual image
abroad of Japanese businessmen as nerdy drones. If any recent Japanese film
deserves to be exported it's this one. 
	The story starts in 1997, with the news that Asahi Chuo Ginko (ACB) -- a
banking behemoth born of a 1971 mega-merger -- has been making
under-the-table loans to a sokaiya (corporate extortionist). This, as it
turns out, is only the first chapter of an epic dirty money-and-favors
scandal that threatens to rock the bank, as well as the entire structure of
Japanese business and government, to its foundations. While the Tokyo
prosecutor's office investigates, the bank's top executives continue to
vacillate and obfuscate. Alarmed and enraged by the business-as-usual
attitude of their superiors, a quartet of middle-management reformers, led
by a Planning Department manager named Kitano (Koji Yakusho), decide to
stage a boardroom coup and install a new management team dedicated to
rooting out corruption. 
	They find a candidate for bank president in Nakayama (Kihachi Nezu), a
board member who has managed to remain independent -- and clean. With the
aid of a hotshot TV news anchor (Wada) and a hard-nosed prosecutor
(Ken'ichi Endo), the story breaks wider and heads begin to roll. But the
investigation hits a roadblock in the formidable Sasaki (Tatsuya Nakadai),
a senior advisor who knows where all the bodies are buried. Kitano knows
that, if the reform effort is to succeed, he must confront the old man.
There is one problem, however: Sasaki also happens to be his father-in-law.

	 Harada's big set-pieces, including an invasion of the bank's Tokyo
headquarters by a black-suited phalanx of investigators and an attempted
disruption of the general shareholders meeting by sokaiya, more than
approximates anything we see on the evening news, but he also takes us into
the backrooms and boardrooms where the cameras never go, while maintaining
the illusion of watching real events unfold live. He makes us not only
observers but participants, sweating out the success or failure of the
reformers' coup, even if we know nothing more about banking than the PIN
number of our cash card. With no guns, no explosions and no deadly martial
arts displays, he keep the tension at Hollywood thriller levels.
	The film's dedication to getting it right is certainly one reason. The
reformers' strategy sessions have the sound of the real arguments, jokes
and gossip of men who have known each other intimately for years. Watching
this and other scenes I wondered whether Harada had been channeling John
Cassavetes, the directorial god of on-screen spontaneity.
	True, some of the performances verge on the cartoony (Masako 
Matai as a glinty-eyed lawyer) or hammy (Takatoshi Saito as an 
outraged shareholder). Even the always excellent Tatsuya Nakadai 
can't resist the occasional indulgence in cranky old man buffoonery. But
 while inserting moments of comic relief, Harada never lets the
 film degenerate into a TV-style mug fest. 
	Koji Yakusho turns in a solid performance as Kitano -- whose 
innate  decency, integrity and stubborn determination shines through 
his Mr. Average surface. Yakusho's Japanese-Peruvian cabby in 
Harada's1995 "Kamikaze Taxi" had similar qualities, but Kitano is a 
more complex creation. While his position as the boss's son-in-law 
makes him more  than just another middle manager and gives him  a 
bigger-than-average  personal stake in the company's future, his 
dedication to reform is nonetheless real, placing him in the movie's 
most awkward situation. 
	There is, however, nothing awkward about "Jubaku," whose honest and
thorough exposure of the rot at the heart Japanese miracle is reminiscent
of Kurosawa's 1960 "Warui Yatsu Hodo Yoku Nemuru" (The Bad Sleep Well) and
1963 "Tengoku to Jigoku" (High and Low). I just hope we don't have to wait
another four decades before the Japanese film industry makes another film
of similar excellence on the same theme. It would also be nice if the
industry didn't have to have to make one period-- save as a historical
drama -- but I wouldn't bet on it.    

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