Aoi Kuruma

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Hiroshi Okuhara
Running time: 90 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Plenty of Japanese directors are making films about the way the young live now, so many that I could probably fill this space every week with them — and drive myself batty. The commercial ones tend toward over-ripe romantic agonizings that are agony to watch, while the arty ones incline toward blank-faced, slow-paced alienation of the slap-yourself-to-stay-awake sort.

Hiroshi Okuhara practices the minimalism favored by directors of the later type — seldom moving his camera, cutting within a scene, or breaking the harmony of his mise en scene with explosions of emotion or violence. (In his work, a single punch is the dramatic equivalent of the Omaha Beach scene in “Saving Private Ryan.”) He is not, however, a pretentious bore, but a keen, patient observer, who can extract drama and meaning from young characters who try their damnedest to be cool — i.e., unreadable and unreachable by parents, bosses, and the rest of the uncool human race.

As did his two previous features, “Timeless Melody” (2000) and “Nami” (2001), his latest film, “Aoi Kuruma (A Blue Automobile),” focuses on such a character — a part-time DJ and record-store employee named Richio (Arata). With his spiky yellow hair, wrap-around shades and pale mask of a face, Richio would seem to be the coolest of the cool, an icy moon circling the distant planet of his own regard.

But as Okuhara shows us from the first scene, Richio has been traumatized by a boyhood horror — and still bears the physical scars on one eye, the emotional scars in dreams and visions he can neither escape nor explain away. The sunglasses and mask are there for a reason, the pain and rage are for real. At the same time, he has a straightforwardness that verges on the cruel — but this is also one of his most appealing qualities.

Richio’s aura of danger and vulnerability make him, in the tradition of countless other movie rebels, irresistible to the opposite sex, though as the film begins, he is commendably loyal to his current girlfriend, Akemi (Kumiko Aso). A real-estate agent, who can look and act the part of the in-charge professional, Akemi is stable and sane in a way that Richio finds anchoring — if not precisely comforting. He sees in her not the surrogate mother so many Japanese men yearn for, but a companion whose presence keeps the demons at bay.

She wants something more — but so does her younger sister, Konomi (Aoi Miyazaki), a sexually adventurous teenage cutie who is bored with high school and unimpressed by boys her own age. She finds that something in Richio — and sets out to steal him from the unsuspecting Akemi.

At the same time, Richio’s goateed, comically anxious boss (Tomoro Taguchi) is struggling to stay close to his young son after a bruising divorce, while keeping his financial head above water. He also has plans that threaten the delicate balance of Richio’s life, including the barriers he has built against adulthood.

All three, in other words, want a bit more of Richio than he is willing to give. The film, however, is less about his stay-or-leave decisions, more about his coming to terms with his feelings and fears, after a tragedy that changes everything.

Okuhara and co-scriptwriter Kosuke Mukai tell this story with a naturalistic flow and elliptical understatement that maximizes character development and trims narrative fat. By the end, we know the four main players well, without enduring the usual explanations about how they came to be that way.

One example: After Richio decks an annoying male colleague of Akemi’s in a bar, the film quickly cuts to Richio and Akemi saying goodbye to said colleague in the street, all unpleasantness apparently past. From this we gather that 1) Richio understands Akemi’s position vis-a-vis the colleague; and 2) is not as rigid about his cool-guy image as we might have thought. All without the typical aftermath of offered apologies and drinks — and with a welcome touch of humor.

Arata, who is appearing in his first film in three years, since the hit comedy “Ping Pong,” brings off the cool part of Richio’s persona as easily as he breathes. But so could a dozen or so of Arata’s actor agemates. He excels, though, in building the character from the inside out — from the scars, not the dye job. In the process he brings out the humanity of a character who is usually doing his best to hide it. (He did something similar to his nerdy table-tennis whiz in “Ping Pong,” but from a completely different angle.)

Supporting him are the excellent Tomoro Taguchi, Kumiko Aso and Aoi Miyazaki. The last, who made award-winning appearances in Shinji Aoyama’s “Eureka” and Akihiko Shinoda’s “Gaichu,” is particularly good at showing us why Konomi wants to walk on the wild side with Richio (she’s testing her powers and limits), without making her look tarty or mean.

“Aoi Kuruma” may be in a crowded market segment, but it’s a ride with style and heart. Recommendation: Buy.

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