My schizoid feeling about the series finds a nice microcosm in “Not Forgotten” (2000) and its abrupt transition from the good to the stupefying. Makoto Shinozaki’s warm, affecting generational drama focuses on four aging buddies still haunted by their World War II combat experiences together. The narrative runs on two tracks for a while. The first consists of episodic slices of life about romance, illness, marital and family relations, survivor guilt, etc. The second is a slow-to-boil subplot about a cultish company that preaches concern for the elderly while preying on their pocketbooks through manipulation and psychological abuse. The tracks look like they’re heading for a smooth merge until they collide like a train wreck in a miscalculated ending that seems to have stumbled in from another genre. Shinozaki most effectively makes his points about the neglected and dishonored older generation simply through the engaging presence of his lead actors. Their luxuriously lined faces and shimmering silver hair, towering on the screen, reminded me again how much the cinema misses out on due to its obsession with youth in all its smooth, glossy blandness.
A slice of life carved out with a rusty, jagged blade, “Harmful Insect” (2001) takes an even more melancholy look at a lost generation, but from the other end of the telescope. Director Akihiko Shiota heaps the tribulations of Job upon his 13-year-old heroine: absent father, suicidal mother, the unwelcome attentions of a pigpen full of middle-aged men and vicious classmates eager to use all these things against her. Her tug o’ war between redemption and self-destruction is presented in the poker-faced, long-take minimalism that’s as much a convention of Japanese art films as hyperactive editing is of American action films. To the extent that I could tell, this is a well-wrought and effective, if not earthshaking, example with a more than passing resemblance to the same year’s lost youth saga All About Lily Chou-Chou. To be honest, though, I was terribly distracted by the tinny blaring of some moron’s headphones throughout the movie. Seriously. And if I ever find out who this motherfucker is, I will hunt him or her down and strangle him or her, if I have to sell all my earthly belongings and travel to another continent to do it. I could write a whole essay on the disappearance of audience etiquette and if you keep watching this space, I just might.
If the generation gap is a major thread in current Nipponese film, an even more important one is gooseflesh. Two of the most acclaimed exemplars of the J-horror wave were included, “Ring” and “Pulse”. Based on a novel by best-selling genre author Koji Suzuki, “Ring” (1998) was the blockbuster that spawned the trend, as well as two mutually exclusive sequels, a prequel, two TV series and a Korean remake, “Ring Virus”. Finally seeing it for myself after years of hype, I was surprised at how minor it felt. The acting is stiff, the visual and narrative rhythms strictly TV movie stuff and the screenplay half expository chatter. What powers the Ring phenomenon is a killer urban legend premise (creepy VHS cassette of mysterious origins brings death to all who watch it) and a handful of iconic, sleep-disrupting images. The classic Japanese ghost story figure of a robed woman draped in long, raven hair is updated chillingly with grainy video. I confess to sleeping with a lamp on that night in spite of my critical reservations. The upcoming DreamWorks remake could actually be better if it’s smart enough to retain the good stuff but shows more imagination in the writing and directing. Don’t hold your breath, though.
More Japanese films in part three of JAPANESE CINEMA NOW>>>

Posted on August 15, 2002 in Features by

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