Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Isshin Inudo
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 7
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Japanese society is rapidly graying, as journalists never tire of telling us. What the journos seldom mention — though the cannier film producers have noticed — is that a lot of graying Japanese like to go to the movies. One big reason for the revival of the jidai geki (period drama) genre is old folks, who were finding fewer of their favorite samurai shows on the small screen. Once jidai geki started appearing on the big screen, over-50s turned out for them, boosting films like “Zatoichi” and “The Last Samurai” to the box-office stratosphere.

There is also a small but growing subgenre of films not only for oldies, but about them. Two recent examples are Takayoshi Watanabe’s “Pretty Woman,” about elderly ladies who put on a play for the first time in their lives, and Chisui Takigawa’s “Fuku no Mimi (Lucky Ears),” about a ghost who haunts an old folks home — and persuades a young employee to help him seduce one of its more attractive residents.

Now there is a third, Isshin Inudo’s “Shinibana (Glorious Death),” a heist comedy whose crooks are elderly gents living in the same retirement home. Their shenanigans have little to do with the reality of growing old in Japan — this is light entertainment, not a crusading documentary. All the same, as he recently proved in his hit romantic drama “Josee to Tora to Sakanatachi (Josee, the Tiger and the Fish),” Inudo can massage cliched material into fresh, unusual shapes.

What he cannot do is reinvent its all-too-familiar premise: Geezers grab one last fistful of gusto. Haven’t you seen that one before? Sure you have.

Inudo makes the proceedings less formulaic by getting the best from his stars, including Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kei Tani, Ken Utsui and Yukio Aoshima — the former Tokyo governor cum comedian. A less-experienced (or more easily intimidated) director than Inudo would have given these veterans free rein — and ended up with a clownish TV skit. Inudo manages to extract real, if relaxed, performances from most of them, though Aoshima still has rust to shake off after decades as a politician.

The principals live in a retirement home run along the lines of a luxury resort hotel, including a swimming pool, gym, aerobics classes and attentive young staff. What better place to spend the sunset years?

Five of the male residents, however, chafe at the routine and duck out regularly to soak a line at a local fishing pond. There is Kikushima (Yamazaki), a former movie producer who works out daily and does 10-finger exercises to keep his brain from going soft, and Anaike (Aoshima), a former construction company president who is nearing a lifelong goal — to bed a thousand women. The others are Ino (Utsui), a charming (if depressed) former banker, Shoji (Tani), a soft-spoken former soldier of fortune (at least that’s what he claims) and Genda (Takuya Fujioka), an 80-year-old jazz fan and tech nerd.

Then Genda dies suddenly — and his four pals discover that he not only made arrangements for his own funeral, including a videotaped farewell and a jazz band, but also left them a detailed plan, titled “Shinibana (Glorious Death),” for a bank robbery. The loot: 1.7 billion yen. The target: The bank from which Ino was forced to resign, under unpleasant circumstances. What else have they got to do with the rest of their lives? They decide to go for it.

The gang soon runs into a complication: The entrance to the tunnel they plan to dig is blocked by the blue tent of a senile homeless man (Isamu Nagato), who spends his days trying to fish Momotaro’s fabled peach out of a nearby river. Bribing him with canned peaches, they make him an accomplice and, with equipment that would do a construction company proud, they start to tunnel.

They have many meters to go before they can reap their reward, however. On the way they encounter obstacles and recruit two other members: the elegant, if plucky, Suzuko (Chieko Matsushima), Kikushima’s new girlfriend, and the sexy, spacey Kazuko (Mari Hoshino), the latest hire at the retirement home. Then, just as they are nearing their goal — let’s just say the weather refuses to cooperate.

“Shinibana” is not the usual heist movie, which makes robbery look like an elaborate game. Instead, it is closer in spirit to John Sturges’ “The Great Escape,” in which tunneling is shown for what it is — hard, sweaty, dangerous work. It’s one thing to see Yamazaki and the other principals, all on the far side of 65, acting sprightly with the ladies. It’s another to watch them heaving massive chunks of concrete, with sweat pouring down their faces. Instead of being inspired, I started to wonder if a doctor was on the set. But all the heavy labor brings the story down to earth.

Also, though Genda’s funeral verges on the absurd, with mourners cutting sedate jitterbug steps as the deceased nods to the beat from a monitor, the film presents it as an ideal — and I found myself thinking “Why not?” Better to go out in your way, however goofy, than leave everything up to chance — and the dead hand of the funeral industry. The film’s most inspired idea, however, is Genda’s plan. What finer parting gift than a road map (or rather tunnel) to riches? I think, though, I would settle for a key to a deposit box.

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