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‘Mada, Ningen (Still Human Beings)’

Todai graduate conceives a strange love triangle

by Mark Schilling

Young indie filmmakers have it tough everywhere, but in Japan the hurdles they face are only getting higher. The so-called mini theaters (art houses) that once screened domestic indie films have been closing their doors or changing their programming to more populist fare. Meanwhile, a growing number of aspiring auteurs are submitting their films to the Pia Film Festival and other local launching pads for young directing talent. How can one stand out from this crowd?

Jumpei Matsumoto has come up with answers to this question not everyone will like. He is a 26-year-old graduate of the University of Tokyo, commonly called Todai, the local equivalent of Harvard, whose graduates are all but assured admittance into the country’s elite. He has also found distribution for his first theatrical feature, “Mada, Ningen (Still Human Beings),” without submitting it to a single festival or winning a single prize. All this smacks of special privilege, doesn’t it? Or perhaps he is a major talent coming out of nowhere?

His love-triangle drama, which he scripted himself, is intense in an actors’ workshop way, with everyone not only acting furiously away but acting out constantly, from sudden, passionate kisses to impulsive attempts at murder.

The plot engine fueled by all this emotionalizing is a ginned-up construct, derived from Matsumoto’s movie-fed imagination.

That said, Matsumoto has an eye for a striking image, a knack for a telling phrase and a vision that reaches beyond the usual social masks, to the essence of what his people are. (Whether they are representative of you or me is another matter.) Also, in an era when too many young filmmakers are diligent careerists, riding obediently on rails laid out for them, Matsumoto’s passion, drive and sheer chutzpah are admirable.

The dramatics get underway with the mysterious death of one Koji Yamamoto, the borrower of a large sum of money from an elite salaryman, Takuya (Masato Tsujioka), who has in turn embezzled it from company coffers. Just as Takuya is melting down from anxiety over the consequences if he can’t recover the cash, a visitor arrives: Ryo (Manabu Ueyama), a struggling actor in town for a performance of a Shakespeare play. Takuya testily tells Ryo he can stay two days, but Ryo, we are soon informed, also knew Yamamoto — and has a crush on Takuya.

The next day, Takuya visits Yamamoto’s grieving-but-sexy widow, Luka (former porn actress Honoka), to find out what she knows about the missing cash, which turns out to be nothing. Their fraught encounter, however, transitions into a session of frantic sex.

Not long after, Ryo comes to Luka’s apartment looking for Takuya, but finds her alone. When Luka learns, over tea, that Ryo has been acting for five years with little to show for it, she asks him why he doesn’t quit. “It’s meaningless,” she adds. Breaking Ryo’s crucifix bracelet (he is a fervent, if erring, Christian), she angrily tells him that God is an illusion. Feeling the pain beneath her outbursts, he embraces her — and a strange love triangle is born.

Together Takuya, Ryo and Luka go looking for Yamamoto’s killer, but this hunt amounts to little more than futile gestures. Their true concern, it soon becomes clear, is with each other — and their assorted troubled pasts. Meanwhile, Takuya’s money difficulties fade into the background, if not out of sight.

None of this makes much real-world sense beyond the necessities of the plot, but a mix of flashback hints and present-day twists, fantastic and otherwise, propels the story forward to its rather prosaic conclusion.

Familiar from supporting roles in dozens of films, including Shinya Tsukamoto’s “Bullet Ballet” in 2000 and Takashi Miike’s “Kurozu Zero (Crows Zero)” in 2007, Tsujioka as Tatsuya ranges easily from explosive to tender, though in temperament his character is closer to an outlaw than a salaryman.

Ueyama, who has acted extensively in the United States and who also appeared in Matsumoto’s previous films, interprets Ryo’s combination of passivity and stubbornness with a delicate fidelity. (Given his experience with Matsumoto’s zero-budget work, he probably knows the struggling actor’s life.)

One surprise is Honoka’s performance as the volatile Luka. Porn actresses who try to go straight often rely more on the skills they acquired in their former craft than whatever acting talent they possess; she is the committed, if slightly awkward, exception.

This trio of dedicated troupers cannot overcome the film’s solemn absurdities, however. I hope Matsumoto goes on to bigger things; that Todai brain shouldn’t go to waste. I also hope he puts aside his Todai pride and learns from contemporaries who have paid their dues, film festival rejections included. Talented he may be, but a second coming of Orson Welles — that boy genius who made masterpieces from the get-go -he most certainly isn’t.