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‘Idai Naru, Shurara-bon (The Great Shurara-bon)’

With great power comes weird family drama

by Mark Schilling

Superheroes by definition have super powers. In Japan, instead of leaping tall buildings with a single bound, these heroes often shoot energy projectiles from their hands — easy and effective, save when your opponent has more wattage. This may seem childish, but it can be fun, as shown by all those smartphone photos of Japanese teenagers caught in mid-air after apparently being zapped off their feet, which trended last year on Twitter.

I was expecting the same sort of goofy entertainment from “Idai Naru, Shurara-bon (The Great Shurara-bon),” Yutaka Mizuochi’s adaptation of Manabu Makime’s best-selling fantasy novel. And that is what the film supplies, with slick, colorful stylistics suggestive of the veteran Mizuochi’s long list of TV-commercial credits.

But don’t expect a romp, with beams shooting and bodies flying, from start to finish. The film’s story is surprisingly serious — more Greek myth than “Ultraman” episode — and the characters spend much screen time explicating the intricacies of their powers, as well as the tangles of family and local history. Finally there are plot twists to be explained, not to mention, in a coda after the credit crawl, the unusual title. The scenes of funny and/or eye-popping CGI action, which the trailer understandably foregrounds, are accordingly scattered and short.

The story, which faithfully follows the outlines of the novel, is set by the shores of Lake Biwa, Japan’s largest body of fresh water. There resides the wealthy and powerful Hinode clan in Iwabashiri Castle. The Hinodes are unique in Japan in not only their living arrangements, but also their strange power over the local community, which kowtows to them as if they were feudal lords.

Idai Naru, Shurara-bon (The Great Shurara-bon)
Rating
Director Yutaka Mizuochi
Run Time 114 minutes
Language Japanese

One day, young Ryosuke Hinode (Masaki Okada), whose father belongs to a branch of the clan, arrives at the castle, where he is greeted by the formidably chatty Toko (Shihori Kanjiya), the smoothly imperious clan leader Tankuro (Shiro Sano) and his arrogant pint-sized son Tanjuro (Gaku Hamada), who paints oils of flowers, wears a special-order red school uniform and travels to high school by boat, poled by the old family retainer, Genjiro (Takashi Sasano). Ryosuke has come to learn the secrets of the Hinode powers, which manifest as hand-controlled force fields that can bend the will of others — or send their bodies flying.

First, though, Ryosuke accompanies Tanjuro to school, where his eccentric cousin uses his powers on a glowering punk, but fails to impress Satsuki (Ito Ono), the tooth-achingly cute daughter of the handsome school principal (Hiroaki Murakami). Instead, she has a crush on Hiromi Natsume (Dai Watanabe), the tall, manly scion of a rival clan with powers that match — and negate Tanjuro’s. Later, Ryosuke has a scary encounter with Kiyoko (Kyoko Fukada), Tanjuro’s chain-smoking, hot-tempered older sister, whose powers are even stronger than her brother’s and have forced her to become a social recluse.

The plot at first turns on Tanjuro and Hiromi’s rivalry over sweet little Satsuki, as well as Ryosuke’s fumbling attempts to cultivate his natural powers, with Toko as his capricious teacher. But the story’s true driver is a disturbing revelation: The principal has mysterious powers of his own that trump those of the two rival clans. How did this civilian, who does not have the Hinodes’ or the Natsumes’ centuries-old pipeline to the lake gods — the ultimate power source — acquire them? Or perhaps a better question, who or what is using him?

The cast, beginning with the multi-talented Hamada as Tanjuro, play wacky caricatures without becoming tedious or obnoxious — not the easiest of acting assignments. But they can’t stop the story from becoming bogged down in explanations that are at base absurd (somewhat like Mary Poppins describing the physics of that trick she does with the umbrella), not to mention power displays that begin with odd hand gestures and end without much really happening. One exception is the ear-shattering sound that erupts when a Hinode and a Natsume clash — a downside to their powers that has helped keep inter-clan peace for generations.

I can understand, though, the attraction of belonging to the film’s Lake Biwa royalty, especially to kids who, like the short, strange Tanjuro, are marked as outsiders. Having a problem with a bully? Zap him!

Also, to give the film credit, it does not devolve into a power-worshipping fantasy. If Tanjuro leaves Lake Biwa, we see, his powers will desert him and, like Ryosuke’s dad, he will become a civilian himself. Yet he dreams of making his escape — and I wanted him to succeed. I was reminded of another movie about a royal kept against his will in a castle, “The Man in the Iron Mask.” Where are the Three Musketeers when you need them? Super powers optional.

Fun fact: The film was shot on the shores of Lake Biwa, with historic Hikone Castle serving as the residence of the Hinode clan in exterior shots. The film’s castle town of Iwabashiri, however, is a fiction.