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Dark clouds over Japan

by Mark Schilling

Lady Joker

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Hideyuki Hirayama
Running time: 121 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Why do films about salarymen tend to be either heavy-footed, with the principals rarely cracking a smile or otherwise dispelling the black clouds hanging over them, or air-headed, with the hero and his pals goofing off at every possible chance?

Having worked with and around salarymen, in the movie business and elsewhere, I’d say the truth lies somewhere between, though more clouds hover now than in the bubble days, when coffee shops and theaters were filled in daylight hours with salarymen and other hataraki bachi (worker bees) killing time on the company dime. (Then again, all those guys perusing sports papers or snoring through yakuza movies may have been doing market research.)

Hideyuki Hirayama’s “Lady Joker,” a film whose heroes either missed the brass ring of success or fell off the merry-go-round entirely, supports this view. Though set in the present, it was inspired by the 1984 kidnapping of a candy-company president that launched a nationwide manhunt and generated massive media coverage, but was never solved. Its whodunit element, however, is less important that its examination of men (and at least two women) caught in a downward spiral of corruption, discrimination, poverty and death.

Revenge, goes the saying, is a dish best served cold, but in this film it is like a bill with penalties compounded for a lifetime, until the only possible payment is lives, careers and a company’s reputation.

Based on a best-selling novel by Kaoru Takamura thought hard, if not impossible, to film, “Lady Joker” is slower, darker and more offbeat than the Hollywood genre standard. The snatching of a beer company president — which would have been a key scene if Bruce Willis had been leading the kidnapping gang — is not even shown, though the aftermath has its share of confrontations and dustups, deadly and otherwise.

This makes “Lady Joker” hard to classify: It’s a bit of everything, from crime thriller to social drama. This may be a failing to those who like their cops-vs.-baddies stories black-and-white, but I found its ambiguity intriguing, if frustrating. Working from a script by Chong Wishing, Hirayama leaves us wanting more — explanations, if nothing else. The black clouds linger, the sun never quite breaks through.

The kidnappers, led by one Seizo Moroi (Tetsuya Watari) — an elderly but still formidable drugstore owner — first meet at a racetrack, where they have come less to make a killing than to kill time. They include Handa (Koji Kikawa), a cynical police detective; Matsudo, a punkish young shop rat; Ko (Mitsuru Fukoshi), a street-smart credit union employee; and Nunokawa (Ren Osugi), a short-fused truck driver whose teenage daughter, nicknamed Lady, doesn’t speak and is confined to a wheelchair.

These five have skills, if not temperaments, that complement each other and, when they decide to kidnap Kyosuke Shiroyama (Kyozo Nagatsuka), the saturnine president of Hinode Beer, their plan goes like clockwork. The police frantically search for leads, but their prime suspects — a group of corporate extortionists — turn out to innocent.

Then the kidnappers release Shiroyama unharmed, announce they are holding 3.5 million kl. of the company’s beer “hostage” — and demand a ransom of 2 billion yen. Shiroyama and the other company executives take this demand seriously, for reasons they would rather not tell. Meanwhile, the police continue their investigation, but a young detective, Goda (Satoshi Tokushige), becomes convinced they are on the wrong track and, over the objections of his superior (Jun Kunimura), goes his own way.

One look at the bright-eyed, straight-arrow Goda — and his prey — and we know how the search is going to end: Suspense is not this film’s strong point. But figuring out the motives, hidden and announced, of Shiroyama and his kidnappers is both tougher and more revealing about Japanese society today, especially its class divisions.

The kidnappers, who call themselves Lady Joker as a group, represent the range of Japan’s outsiders: Ko is an ethnic Korean; Moroi is descended from burakumin, the “untouchable” class; and Matsudo was rejected by his girlfriend’s upper-class parents because “he’s not our sort.” Lady, of course, is an outsider by the very nature of her disability. And Goda? As a “non-career” (i.e., rank-and-file) detective he is forever denied promotion to the upper reaches of the force, while “career-track” cops, usually from elite universities, are bound for glory from the beginning.

Shiroyama’s secret? Best to say only that hardly anyone’s hands are clean in this film — whether their class is high, low or in between.

Muroi, the catalyst for all the action, is a modest, dignified, infinitely patient man, dedicated to righting a wrong more than half a century in the past. He is a type of Japanese, we are given to believe, all but extinct. Tetsuya Watari, an action star for Nikkatsu in the 1960s and a TV fixture in the decades since, embodies this deeply wounded, but stubbornly unbowed character with almost painful authenticity. (Not in the best of health even in his prime, Watari has reportedly been ailing of late — and looks it on the screen.)

Hollywood would have its dirty heroes raising a one-fingered salute to their hunters and oppressors — and triumphing even in defeat. Hirayama, the director of some of the most truthful and entertaining Japanese films of recent years, including “Warau Kaeru (Laughing Frog)” and “Out,” is more realistic — and thus despairing. The forecast for Lady Joker’s millions of fellow outsiders is cloudy.