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Digging deep to find the sparkle in Japanese Eyes

by Mark Schilling

Japan’s film industry releases more than 400 films a year, but only 10 screened in the Japanese Eyes section of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, which ran from Oct. 18 to 26.

Started in 2004, Japanese Eyes was inspired by the Cannes Film Festival’s Un Certain Regard section, which specializes in adventurous films by new directors. Both adjectives certainly apply to some of the films in Japanese Eyes, but, year in and year out, the selections tend to be on the earnest, high-minded side, ranging from the messagey to the melodramatic. I’m not quite sure why — perhaps the programmers want to present the respectable side of Japanese cinema to the world, not the latest Takashi Miike genre outrage.

Interesting films do end up on the program, though — and not all are by young directors. One is this year’s winner of the Japanese Eyes Best Picture Award — Jun Ichikawa’s “buy a suit.”

Ichikawa died of a cerebral hemorrhage on Sept. 19, aged 59, while the film was still in postproduction. Far from a rough cut, however, this 47-minute drama is an eloquent testament to Ichikawa’s talent — a talent criminally underappreciated in his lifetime. Shot on the streets of Tokyo with an HD cam — a lightweight video camera — the film is also a return to his indie roots.

The story is simple — a young woman (Yukiko Sunahara) arrives in Tokyo from the countryside to look for her long-lost older brother (Sabakichi) — a brilliant but eccentric man who recently sent her a postcard ending with a vague reference to his current residence.

After meeting with her brother’s former classmate and close friend, who lost touch with him years ago, she tracks down her brother — and finds him living under a blue tarp near a bridge. He tells her he is planning to get back on his feet with a dubious-sounding business venture, but she is skeptical. An enterprising sort, she arranges a meeting with his one-time lover — a blowsy bar proprietress — hoping for a reconciliation and a return to a more-or-less normal life for her brother.

Ichikawa films this journey into the past — and a possible future — with no sets, no professional actors, nothing but his gift for transforming the mundane and temporal into the transcendent.

There is a certain rhythm to the shots in “buy a suit.” Scenes of traffic or pedestrians segue to long or medium shots of the principals, finally moving in for close-ups. There is, however, nothing predictable or obvious. Instead, Ichikawa leads us steadily, delicately into his characters’ hearts — and the mysteries of life. He makes Tokyo look idyllic, despite its urban clutter and noise, but he also exposes its cruelties and insanities. The ending is a devastating, haunting reminder of our human fragility.

The section’s other prize-winner was veteran character actor Ittoku Kishibe, who received a special award for his performance as the dodgy, if genial, lover of Keiko Matsuzaka’s slatternly, if good-natured, single mom in Fujiro Mitsuishi’s “Osaka Hamlet.”

Many films set in Osaka make the case that the natives are more easy-going, fun-loving and straight-talking than their uptight Tokyo cousins, but Mitsuishi proves it entertainingly and convincingly in this manga-to-movie adaptation. The mom — a hospital attendant by day, a club hostess at night — is raising three sons — or rather smilingly allowing them to raise themselves. There is the skinny-but-spunky sixth-grader who longs to be a girl, the punkish junior-high-schooler who lives to bash heads but becomes fascinated with “Hamlet” and the high-schooler who is regularly mistaken for a college boy — and falls for a gorgeous older woman with a father fixation.

The various complications play out to predictable feel-good conclusions, but the film is hard not to like. Everyone in the family is odd in one way or another, but not off-puttingly. Quite the opposite in fact. How can you not admire a kid who runs on top of a sea wall reciting “Hamlet” at the top of his lungs in Kansai dialect?

Also entertaining, but in a radically different way, was Kaizo Hayashi’s “The Code,” a spoof thriller about a detective agency that specializes in code-breaking. All of Hayashi’s films, including the mid-1990s trilogy featuring feckless-but-fearless private investigator Mike Hama, are about his own obsessional movie love, and the latest is no exception. The story, in which the agency’s No. 1 code-breaker journeys to Shanghai to solve a deadly puzzle leading to a mythical treasure, rehashes ancient B-movie cliches, but the bespectacled hero, played by Kabuki actor Kikunosuke Onoe, is surprisingly tough and cool beneath his nerdy exterior.

Also, Hayashi delivers several awe-inspiring (or, rather, “wow”-inspiring) action scenes, featuring the still formidable talents of action icons Joe Shishido as a white-suited detective and Hiroki Matsukata as his former mentor turned hit-man nemesis. Watching the 74-year-old Shishido — the “Ace Joe” of many 1960s Eastern-Westerns — twirl a pistol with dazzling speed is alone worth the price of admission.

As for the well-intended but dull films on the program: We’ll leave them for another time, shall we?