Film / Reviews

Journey to the center of the human volcano

by Mark Schilling

Hotaru Style to Kill
Rating: * * * Director: Naomi Kawase Running time: 164 min. Language: JapaneseEnds April 20 Rating: * * * * * Director: Seijun SuzukiLanguage: Japanese Now showing

In 1997, a young documentary filmmaker named Naomi Kawase won the Camera d’Or prize at the Cannes Film Festival for her first feature film, “Moe no Suzaku.” A drama about the disintegration of a family and community, set deep in the mountains of Kawase’s native Nara Prefecture and shot almost entirely with amateur actors, “Moe no Suzaku” became an art-house hit and made Kawase a celebrity. Even the sports papers covered her marriage to her producer, Suncent Cinema Work President Takenori Sento.

Toshiya Nagasawa and Yuko Nakamura in “Hotaru”

Her second feature, “Hotaru (Firefly),” is a story of turbulent love told in her characteristic visually poetic, narratively impressionistic style, but with a new emotional power and narrative dynamism.

Even so, Kawase is still very much the conscientious documentarian, who would rather have the characters tell their own story, in their own way, than force them to express a preconceived directorial vision. The aim is an examination of inner realities, free of the usual commercial restraints — and “Hotaru” achieves it more often than not.

A sincere, tenacious type, Kawase can’t rest until she has worked through her lovers’ roiling surfaces to their raw sulfurous core. It is not somewhere every director can or even wants to go — human volcanoes can be as dangerous to explore as the natural kind — but Kawase returns alive, with nuggets of emotional truth

Despite this, at nearly three hours, the film is a long sit. Certain scenes drag on interminably, as though Kawase, absorbed in her character’s personal journeys, forgot to bring the audience along.

“Hotaru” begins dramatically enough. After a raging argument with her lover, an exotic dancer (Yuko Nakamura) storms out of her ramshackle house and, thoroughly depressed, absentmindedly walks into the path of an oncoming car. Among the first on the scene is a dark, brawny potter (Toshiya Nagasawa), who thinks that the woman lying on the street and staring up at him has tried to kill herself.

Shaken, but somehow attracted, he invites her to a local festival. Working in the nearby mountains at what was once his father’s kiln, he has fashioned hundreds of ceramic holders for the festival’s spectacular outdoor display of votive candles — one of the film’s more memorable life-force symbols. The dancer’s club, however, is raided by the police and she spends the night in jail.

The potter, thinking that she may have tried to do herself in again, searches frantically for her and, in the process, learns what she does for a living. It doesn’t matter — by this time he is mad about her. The dancer reciprocates, hesitantly then passionately, the old boyfriend by now forgotten.

There is, however, more between this pair than hot sex: Both are wrestling with demons in their past, but those of the dancer, who was abandoned by her mother as a child and ran away from home a decade ago, are larger and more immediately threatening. With the support of her new lover, she decides to return to her birthplace to confront them.

Playing the potter, Nagasawa exudes a rough masculinity and wounded sensitivity reminiscent of the young Nick Nolte. His love scenes with newcomer Nakamura smolder, but Nakamura more than matches him in intensity, especially when she destroys everything in her house but the kitchen sink, and then only because she can’t lift it. Is it any coincidence that, when she made the film, director Kawase was in the process of divorcing producer Sento?

Also screening with “Hotaru” at Theatre Shinjuku until April 21 is a Seijun Suzuki retrospective: “Style to Kill.” A cult legend, Suzuki redefined the hard-boiled action genre in the 1960s in ways that his bosses at the Nikkatsu studio found puzzling and finally outrageous. Instead of treating the genre’s tired conventions with the expected seriousness, Suzuki playfully subverted them with images, such as the startling red flower in the black-and-white opening scene of 1963 breakthrough, “Yaju no Seishun (Youth of the Beast).” Critics later called it “kabuki-esque,” and a small but growing legion of fans couldn’t get enough of it.

He also had the ideal star in Jo Shishido, a pudgy-faced actor whose rawboned vitality, air of impudence and rapid-fire bursts of dialogue were perfectly suited to Suzuki’s own cheeky but carefully stylized assaults on film-industry orthodoxy and rationality. The culmination of this partnership was the 1967 “Koroshi no Rakuin (Branded to Kill),” an utterly bizarre take on outlaw rivalry that featured Shishido as a desperate character called Hitman No. 3. Hitman botches a job because a butterfly lands on the scope of his rifle; he spends much of the film running from death as though he were trapped in a bad dream.

The film got Suzuki fired from Nikkatsu, nearly ruined his career — and is today recognized as an absurdist masterpiece that has inspired everyone from Quentin Tarantino, who colored rather than numbered his outlaws in “Reservoir Dogs,” to Jim Jarmusch, who paid homage to “Branded’s” famous firing-the-gun-through-the-water-pipe shot in “Ghost Dog — The Way of the Samurai.”