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‘Karasu no Oyayubi (Crow’s Thumb)’

The inside track on Japan's petty con men

by Mark Schilling

Genres come with expectations, often advertised right on the poster. The one for Tadafumi Ito’s “Karasu no Oyayubi (Crow’s Thumb)” shows star Hiroshi Abe and his supporting cast looking well dressed and mostly wised-up, which makes good genre sense since they are playing con artists plotting to cheat some gangsters out of a small fortune. And by a convention dating back to Cary Grant and beyond, this sort of caper movie requires its criminal heroes to be witty and sophisticated and to end up finally on the side of the angels, if not always the law.

But when I saw “Crow’s Thumb” at its Tokyo International Film Festival world premiere, with Abe nowhere in sight (he was promoting another film and the rule was evidently one Abe appearance per festival), I realized that the poster was false advertising. Instead of a Riviera casino, we first see our hero Takeo “Take” Takezawa (Abe) at a seamy race track, impersonating a straight-arrow salaryman who knows zero about the ponies but wants to try his luck.

The ensuing scam is quite clever and seemingly real (though the film is based on a novel of the same title by Shusuke Michio) — and I began to forget Grant and remember “The Grifters,” the 1990 Stephen Frears film set in the sordid world of small-time hustlers that con men of Take’s ilk actually inhabit.

The film, however, betrays expectations yet again when Take and his partner, the middle-aged, rotund Tetsu (Shoji Murakami), are camping out in a park as night falls and Take relates the sad story of how he fell to his lowly state, which features loans that couldn’t be repaid, a yakuza loan shark who wouldn’t be appeased and a woman who died because of Take’s attentions as a collector working for said yakuza. Vowing to support her two orphaned girls, Take took up his present occupation — and found he was rather good at it.

This story no doubt resembles that of many local con men, who scuffle for rent money rather than swindle for a villa in Antibes, but in telling it Ito recalls the wetter films of mentor Yoji Yamada, who was a past master of the blatant heart-string tug. But he lacks Yamada’s talent for gliding rather than slogging through his pathetic, if finally uplifting, story — and at 160 minutes, “Crows Thumb” is a long slog indeed.

Through a series of encounters I won’t detail, Take and Tetsu end up sharing an old house with three apprentice scammers: the cute sisters Yahiro (Satomi Ishihara) and Mahiro (Rena Nonen), and Yahiro’s boyfriend (Yu Koyanagi), who is a dab hand at anything small and mechanical.

This promises fun, but instead of running entertaining scams this quintet spends much of the film’s draggy middle section bonding in a semi-darkened house (a lighting choice that made me want to hand the cast 100-watt bulbs) or defending it when their enemies — gangsters on Take’s trail — begin to close in. As they begin their counterattack, using their wits instead of fists and firepower, the film picks up momentum again, but quickly loses it in the sort of extended revelation sequence beloved by Japanese mystery writers, as the all-wise detective accounts for every plot turn.

There is no detective doing the lengthy explaining in “Crow’s Thumb,” but we do finally find out what the enigmatic title means, as well as too much else. Everything is tidied up neatly and sentimentally, as any hint of the hard-boiled view of life of “The Grifters” evaporates. Instead, in what might be described as its final reversal, the film harkens back to those Victorian novels that end with the postscript fates of the characters — good, bad and indifferent, properly allotted.

Abe, who can be quite funny when he plays off his serious public image, as he proved in this year’s mega-hit “Terumae Romae (Thermae Romae),” is less effective in “Crow’s Thumb” as a reluctant outlaw who is a solid citizen at heart. Instead of a rakish Cary Grant, he gives us a guilt-stricken Gregory Peck. I know which one I’d rather watch playing three-card monte — if not bet against.