Money for nothing, but you won't be free

by Mark Schilling

Counterfeiting is one of those movie crimes that, by the laws of script writing, is doomed to fail, like the overelaborate heists that end with the thieves either dead or captured and their loot billowing up in clouds of green from an open briefcase.

It’s also a crime, though, that appeals to larcenous, nonviolent dreamers, since passing funny money seems unlikely to get you shot or even caught if you’re clever enough. What, one wonders, is the reality?

“Nisesatsu” (“Counterfeit Bills”), the first film directed by comedian/chef/ character actor Yuichi Kimura, is based on a true incident that occurred in Yamanashi Prefecture in 1951.

Three pillars of the local community — a former elementary school principal, a former Imperial Navy officer and a former Imperial Army officer — formed the core of a ring that counterfeited ¥1,000 notes, serious money in those days. When the cops finally closed in, they seized ¥12 million in fake notes and made 21 arrests. The ringleaders got a maximum of 15 years.

Director Yuichi Kimura
Run Time 94 minutes
Language Japanese

Kimura’s film, which he coscripted with Kosuke Mukai and Kishu Izuchi, takes liberties with the facts of the case, while evoking the anything-goes mood of the early postwar years when even normally law-abiding folks took up shady activities out of economic desperation.

The film, however, goes beyond social realism to uncover the all-too human motivations of its counterfeiters and their village coconspirators in a wryly distanced and keenly observant manner. In this it resembles the films of Shohei Imamura (1926-2006) that examined criminality in the same chaotic period, when old values had been overturned — and the democracy of the American conquerors was only an imperfect substitute. Despite the jolly Dixieland music on the soundtrack, “Nisesatsu” is more of a moral drama than a caper comedy, though it does bill itself as entertainment, not Imamura’s brand of high cinematic art.

One big reason for the Imamura comparisons is Mitsuko Baisho, the much-acclaimed veteran actress who starred in several Imamura films, including “Fukushu Suru wa Wari ni Ari” (“Vengeance Is Mine”; 1979) — his classic about postwar criminality at its most brutal. In “Nisesatsu” she plays Kageko Sada, the vice-principal of an elementary school in a mountain village who begins the film by burning her wartime texts and looking with a dismay at the empty bookshelves, which she has no funds to refill.

One day, a smarmy former student turned hustler (Toshiyuki Itakura) comes to her with a plan to solve the school’s — and the village’s — financial problems: Make fake ¥1,000 notes. Undeterred when she shows him the door, he recruits Toura (Yasunori Danta), the village headsman, who made fake Chinese bank notes under the auspices of the Japanese military during the war, as well as a local papermaker (Jun Murakami) and photographer (Kimura) who have the skills required for counterfeiting.

Then Toura brings in his former Imperial Army subordinate and master counterfeiter Ogasawara (Masaki Miura), as well as Kageko, who weakens under his somber air of authority and persuasive logic. Given that the government itself made funny money not long ago, he asks her, why can’t ordinary people do it as well? Who are they hurting exactly? The sad eyes of her book-starved students give her an answer — and she starts raising money among the villagers to buy a printing press.

The scheme proceeds swimmingly. Toura ambitiously declares that their goal is to make “real money” that no one would mistake for fake, but danger signals are also flashing almost from the beginning: The hustler’s tarty girlfriend (Ryo Nishikata) starts getting flirty with both the photographer and former soldier-counterfeiter, while Kageko’s mentally-challenged son (Munetaka Aoki) starts carving a “counterfeit” stone turtle to resemble his live pet — a reminder that, while seemingly oblivious to the gang’s plans, he is still a witness to them.

“Nisesatsu” is Kimura’s first feature as a director, and in several clunkily staged scenes, it shows, but he is also an accomplished character actor, who can portray man-of-the-people types both realistically and comically. He draws similarly balanced, detailed performances from his main cast, even in the comic scenes that, in the usual Japanese caper film, would quickly degenerate into mugging.

Baisho is the standout, playing Kageko as tenderhearted toward her students but stoutly unrepentant about her crime. She may be a representative postwar type, but she is also an instructive figure for our times. Money, she reminds us, can determine happiness or unhappiness or even life or death, but it is finally just pieces of paper that someone has given an arbitrary value.

The unauthorized makers of it — counterfeiters — get their legal comeuppance, but what about the financial wizards who dreamed up the derivatives that have proven to be just as fake and far more disastrous? Quite often, they end up in bars in sunny Rio instead of behind bars in some dank prison. There may be a movie in their story too — but somehow, Kimura’s feels cleaner. At least, at the end, one feels like giving Kageko and her cohorts a round of applause, instead of executing them in the town square at dawn.