Art directors are known as below-the-line talent in the movie business. That is, they are considered a rank below the director, producer and scriptwriter on the production pecking order, and they are paid accordingly.

But art direction can have a large, memorable impact on a film, one famous example being Anton Furst’s nightmarish Gotham cityscape in Tim Burton’s “Batman” (1989), which won him an Oscar. (“You revel in this scary Fascistic playground . . . .it has belly-laugh wit,” raved Pauline Kael in her New Yorker review.)

Takeo Kimura is Japan’s best-known art director. In a career dating back to 1945, he has worked with everyone from Nikkatsu studio stalwart Toshi Masuda to auteurs Kazuo Kuroki and Mitsuo Yanagimachi. His longest, closest association, however, has been with cult icon Seijun Suzuki — from Suzuki’s youth drama “Akutaro” in 1963 through to “Pistol Opera” in 2001.

Yume no Mani Mani
Director Takeo Kimura
Run Time 106 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (Oct. 24, 2008)

Kimura’s bold designs were a perfect match for Suzuki’s unbuttoned direction in classics such as “Nikutai no Mon (Gate of Flesh)” (1964) and “Tokyo Nagaremono (Tokyo Drifter)” (1966). Who can forget the all-white nightclub in the latter film, with the huge donut-shape, color-shifting mobile — like nothing in real life but expressive of the film’s go-go-era, anything-can-happen world.

Now 90, Kimura has finally taken the director’s chair for “Yume no Mani Mani (Something Like a Dream).” Based on his own, self-published novel, with an elderly hero whose job description — industry veteran turned film-school teacher and director — resembles Kimura’s own, the film serves as a showcase for Kimura’s still formidable talent.

It’s usually not a good sign if you find yourself paying more attention to a film’s art direction than its characters and story. But with “Yume,” it would be disappointing if the visual elements didn’t stand out.

Fortunately, Kimura shows us his stuff from almost the first scene. When professor Kiya (Hiroyuki Nagato) and his wife Emi (Ineko Arima) sit down to breakfast, the warm browns of the wooden counter and table express both the coziness of their home and the closeness of their relationship. All typical enough, but Kimura has filled the counter with bulky kitchen gadgets, including a juicer that breaks after the beefy maid crams peaches into it. The gadgets show not only the couple’s relative prosperity but, comically, their very contemporary over-reliance on technology. (Kiya ends up pulping the peaches by hand with an old-fashioned grater.)

This scene is a fitting introduction to the film, which is a last look back by the dwindling war generation, a common theme in recent Japanese films. (Kimura was art director on two such films by Kuroki: “Chichi to Kuraseba (The Face of Jizo)” (2004) and “Kamiya Etsuko no Seishun (The Youth of Etsuko Kamiya)” (2006). Kimura’s take on this theme, though, is anything but cliched.

A respected sensei (teacher) at the film school and soon to become dean, Kiya is an open-minded, tolerant type. When a manic, if charismatic, student named Daisuke (Yoshio Inoue) proudly shows him a new tattoo on his arm of Marilyn Monroe — his idol — Kiya hardly bats an eye. “You shouldn’t have done that,” he says, smiling. Despite this gentle rebuke, Daisuke becomes devoted to Kiya as both a mentor and a witness to the war and its aftermath — a period with which Daisuke is obsessed.

While affectionately reciprocating this interest, Kiya remains clear-eyed about the state of Daisuke’s troubled soul and incoherent work. (“That one is a miss, isn’t it?” he says calmly after seeing one of Daisuke’s short films.) At the same time, he finds himself falling into reveries about people and events of six decades earlier, particularly a beauty suffering from tuberculosis (Rie Miyazawa) who ran a bar he once frequented and became the object of a never-expressed love.

Walking to the school one day, Kiya sees a woman who could be his departed love’s twin by a gnarled old tree that he regards as a touchstone to those dark post-war years. Is she real or a ghost?

The mildly senile Emi, meanwhile, becomes ever more lost in the past, remembering a sister who died in the Hiroshima bombing and a soldier whose photograph she has treasured down the years. Inspired by these memories, she plays a nostalgic tune over and over on the piano — until she starts to forget the last passage.

Then Daisuke is committed to a mental hospital, from which he sends Kiya letter after frenzied letter excoriating war and hinting at suicide. He is haunted by his own ghost — Marilyn, but with a disconcertingly Japanese face.

In a program note, Kimura says that the relationship between Kiya and Daisuke is based on a true story, but it looks dated on screen. Daisuke is closer in spirit to Japan’s passionately antiwar baby boomers than his mostly apolitical contemporaries.

Nagato, who was a young star at Nikkatsu when Kimura was with the studio, makes us feel the weight of Kiya’s years, but he is also alive to the present, including its absurdity and strangeness.

Suzuki, a surrealist to his bones, may have influenced Kimura’s phantasmagorical excursions into the realms of dream and memory, but the images are all Kimura’s. From Marilyn’s translucent form to a haunting reunion between the living and the dead, they are the flights of an imagination, now in its 10th decade, that is still intoxicated with the potential of film.

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