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‘I’m Flash!’

Making a killing in the religious-cult racket

by Mark Schilling

Religious con-men have probably been around as long as religion itself, though we have no way of knowing what scams fake shamans were running in the caves.

For every Jesus, who had a low opinion of the rich and left little more than a strangely stained burial shroud (if that) on his demise, there have been dozens of priests, ministers and gurus raking it in, living it up and believing in nothing but the endless gullibility of the human race.

One is Rui (Tatsuya Fujiwara), the wealthy, cosseted leader of a dubious New Religion and the enigmatic hero of Toshiaki Toyoda’s oddly titled “I’m Flash!” Based on Toyoda’s original script, the film is his third in a row to promise deep thinks about Big Issues, but feels at once overblown and underdeveloped, as though Toyoda had devoted more attention to the showy art direction and the surface, rather than the meaning, of what he was trying to say.

But unlike 2011′s “Monsters Club” and 2009′s “Yomigaeri no Chi (The Blood of Rebirth),” self-consciously arty films aimed at the “mini-theater” and festival crowd, “I’m Flash!” is more clearly commercial, with thriller elements in its story, horror vibes in its visuals and three hot young actors in its lead roles.

The problems begin at the beginning when a young man (Tasuku Emoto) on a motorcycle is hit head-on by a speeding sports car, with a tipsy Rui at the wheel and a nameless bar pickup (Kiko Mizuhara) by his side. Rui survives with nary a scratch, while the girl is left comatose and the motorcyclist dies on the road.

In the real world, as opposed to Toyoda Movie World, Rui would soon be dealing with police, lawyers, media hordes and the grieving relatives of the man he’d killed. Instead he retreats undisturbed to the Okinawa compound of his sect, called (appropriately for him at least) Life is Beautiful, to spear fish in the sea, visit the girl in the hospital and moodily contemplate the state of his soul.

Of the motorcyclist not another word is said. His last rites go unnoticed, as if he were a hamster buried in the garden. This made me doubt the moral compass of not only the hero, but the director.

Other incidents intensified this doubt, but detailing them would mean spoiling the film. It’s enough to say that Rui’s oily chief aide (Itsuji Itao) hires three tough-guy bodyguards (Ryuhei Matsuda, Kento Nagayama and Shigeru Nakano) to prevent an anticipated attempt on his boss’ life. They are given (totally illegal) handguns and, as we soon see, are good at using them. Since they are in the employ of a religious organization in the grip of a scandal, not a yakuza gang at war, this is another instance of movie-world logic outweighing real-world common sense.

The plot, such as it is, revolves around Rui’s intent to dissolve the sect over the opposition of his smilingly cynical mother (Michiyo Okusu) and incandescently outraged sister (Mayu Harada). His flamboyantly transsexual brother (Yukiya Kitamura) is indifferent to the fate of the sect, as long as he can get his operations paid for.

One of the film’s central relationships, however, is between Rui, who spouts lofty aphorisms about life, death and the survival of the spirit, and Matsuda’s cool, skeptical bodyguard, who believes, like Jesus, that the dead should bury the dead.

Another is between Rui and the beautiful bar pickup, who reappears in flashbacks throughout the film. She turns out to be yet another only-in-the-movies construct: The girl who is righteously angry at the hero for yet another of his crimes, while flirting furiously with him. That is, a creation about as genuine as one of Rui’s spiritual pep talks.

As usual in Toyoda’s work, reality eventually collides with the surreal — or perhaps the supernatural. Rui gives signs that he is a god on Earth, from minor parlor tricks (lighting a cigarette with his bare fingers) to miracles of evasion and escape. But he is also the spoiled, self-centered heir to what is essentially a family business, started by his grandfather and built into a prosperous enterprise by his father — whose bullet-pierced skull is now the grisly altarpiece in a bizarre charnel-house-cum-chapel.

Instead of resolving these contradictions (as does the better-known story of Siddhartha), “I’m Flash!” gives us an ending that raises more questions than it answers. It’s all done stylishly, but also obviously. Life, it tells us, is short, mysterious and not always beautiful. So what else is new?