“Live fast and leave a beautiful corpse” James Dean used to say — and he famously followed his own advice by dying in a car crash at the age of 24. Writer Yukio Mishima took it one step further: He not only committed seppuku (ritual suicide) just as he was about to enter middle age, but worked for years to buff a once scrawny body to the appropriate state of perfection for the ultimate legend-making act.
A few Dead Legends, though, are genuine — not self-made — tragic figures, who died just as they were about to realize their greatest potential.
One, Kamachi Yamada, may not be as well known as Dean abroad, but his flame burns brightly for the thousands of fans here who still read his poems and view his paintings, more than a quarter century after his death at the age of 17.
Unlike Dean and most other Dead Legends, Kamachi did not rise to fame and fortune in his lifetime. Instead, he was a Gunma Prefecture teenager who was raised in an average family (salaryman dad, housewife mom) and did mostly ordinary teenage things, such as hang out with his buds, moon after girls and play the electric guitar. (It was a shock from said guitar that killed him one hot, sweaty summer afternoon in 1977.)
But he was also a ferociously prolific poet and artist. From the evidence of Rokuro Mochizuki’s biopic “Kamachi,” some of that output was little more than classroom doodles, but the poems that dance across the screen and the paintings that take shape before our eyes burst with vitality, invention and emotional directness. As evidenced by his drawings of nude women, Kamachi was also a draughtsman of rare skill (as well as adept at hiding his work from prying adult eyes). Marc Chagall is one point of comparison; Arthur Rimbaud is another.
Starring rapper Shinya Taniuchi in the title role, the film starts as a conventional seishun eiga (youth film), albeit about an extraordinary youth. The performances are stiff, with mostly inexperienced actors trying to inhabit characters a generation older. Still, the energy on the screen, visual and otherwise, is formidable. Also, Ta niuchi’s Kamachi is a likable, unpretentious kid who says exactly what he thinks and feels. It’s as though, knowing he only has a short time to live, he has no patience with the usual evasions and subterfuges. As Jack Kerouac used to say, why be subtle and false?
We first meet him when he is a third-year student in junior high school — and already complaining that the day only has 24 hours. While churning out work at a furious rate, he sets two goals for himself: first, enter the University of Tokyo straight from high school and, second, become a world-class musician.
Unfortunately, classroom routine bores him to tears and he ends up blowing an entrance test for an elite high school. A favorite art teacher (Tomoro Taguchi) consoles him by saying that students studying for an entrance exam are competing with human beings — but “true artists and poets compete with God.”
Before Kamachi can go toe-to-toe with the Almighty, however, he has to get through cram school. He makes friends with an earnest classmate whose ambition is to be a doctor like his dad — but Kamachi’s eye soon lights on Yoko Kanno (Fumiko Himeno), a tall beauty who excites his aesthetic sense. “I need beautiful things,” he tells his friend.
He declares himself to Yoko, who shyly reciprocates — with a handshake. Then the film makes a sudden transition to the present, with Yoko (Fumi Dan), now a grown woman, teaching at a cram school herself. Two of her students, Yuichi (Keita Furuya) and Miyuki (Akane Osawa), are frequent visitors to a Web site that, illustrated by characters from “The Pied Piper of Hamlin,” offers a standing invitation to “another world” — death. Miyuki, who is also a Kamachi fan, decides to accept.
This sort of past-to-present transition is common in Japanese films about historical personages and events a young audience may be only vaguely familiar with. It nearly always feels forced — and insulting to the brighter members of an audience. “Kamachi” is no exception.
Mochizuki, who is best known for his gang films, including his 1997 masterpiece “Onibi (The Fire Within),” worked for years to bring this labor of love to the screen. He and his staff, many of whom are members of the Kamachi generation, re-create the period with conviction and affection. They should have stayed in it.
The young principals, four of whom are from the rap group Lead, have the requisite teen heart-throb looks and charisma, but Taniuchi is the standout, as he should be. Somehow, he manages to channel Kamachi’s essence, without seeming to act. But Mochizuki is really better with tough guys than teens — 1977 was a long, long time ago.