In movies as in life, first impressions count. Hence all the money lavished on opening credits, all the thought devoted to opening scenes. Quite often though, the flashy, clever beginning comes to feel like a con, as the formulaic story wends its way to its predictable end.
In his new film, “Kitsutsuki to Ame (The Woodsman and the Rain),” Shuichi Okita persuaded me he knew what he was about from scene one and never disappointed thereafter, making maximum use of his talent with a minimum expenditure of yen. One of my favorites of this year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, it was rightly awarded the Special Jury Prize in the competition.
The film opens in a mountain forest, where a 60-year-old lumberjack (Koji Yakusho) is cutting down a large tree. Many another director would have used a series of short cuts or even a stunt double to spare his middle-aged star effort and danger. Instead, Okita shows us Yakusho laboring hard (while producing real beads of sweat) and standing close by the tree as it comes crashing noisily down.
All of which made me think the character was the real working-man deal and that both director and star would go above and beyond the call of duty to make “Woodsman” extraordinary. That proved to be the case.
The story, however, is less about elderly derring-do, more about an unusual culture clash and its consequences, from the funny to the teary. Okita, who cowrote the script with Fumio Moriya, tells it with a dry but never cynical eye, as well as a finely balanced blend of true-life observation and storytelling craft.
Soon after the lumberjack, Katsuhiko, cuts down his tree, he is approached by a nervous assistant director (Kanji Furutachi) who tells him a film is shooting nearby and asks him to quiet down. This request doesn’t immediately register in Katsuhiko’s puzzled brain, but he is soon drafted into helping the outsiders, who know little more about their location than they can find on Google Maps.
More seriously, the tyro director of this trashy zombie pic within a pic, Koichi (Shun Oguri), has been struck nearly dumb with fear and indecision, while his cast and crew regard him with barely disguised contempt. What can the reluctant Katsuhiko, who knows nothing about movies but likes playing one of the living-dead extras, do to help?
The answer involves several improbabilities that Okita, Yakusho and Oguri (who directed his own debut feature, 2010’s “Surely Someday”) seamlessly work into comic and dramatic gold.
This is not to say that “Woodsman” is slick; in fact, like Okita’s previous feature, 2010’s scrumptiously delightful foodie dramady “Nankyoku Ryorinin (The Chef of South Polar),” it’s on the slow side — even gently dreamy. But, as exemplified by the tree-felling scene, it firmly grounds even its screwiest scenes in the real world (if you consider a film set “real”).
It also exerts an intimate emotion-tug not usually seen in local zero-to-hero dramadies, with their big, walloping finales. Katsuhiko not only comes to regard Koichi as a surrogate son, but his on-set experiences make him see his real son (Kora Kengo), a slacker nearly the same age as Koichi, with new eyes (and caused me, with my own twentysomething son, to mist up).
Yakusho once again demonstrates that he is the most versatile and adaptable of Japanese actors, playing his working-class hero with unforced authority and surprising agility. He strides up mountains as though he has been doing it all his life — or spending months on the StairMaster. Meanwhile, Oguri disguises the ikemen (pretty boy) looks that won him millions of female fans on hit TV dramas such as “Hana Yori Dango” (“Boys Over Flowers”).
Most of all, “Woodsman” glows with a deep love of the movies, even ones that feature ridiculous zombie holocausts. As Katsuhiko reminds us, his eyes shining as he reads Koichi’s script, there’s a magic to telling stories for the camera that anyone can understand, even (or rather, especially) if they’ve spent their lives in forests instead of in front of screens.
Few other young Japanese filmmakers have captured that magic with Okita’s quiet power.