Based on Osamu Dazai’s most famous novel, Genjiro Arato’s “Ningen Shikkaku” (“The Fallen Angel”) is a characteristic gamble for the veteran producer/ director, known for rushing in where others fear to tread.

Arato’s 1995 directorial debut, “Fazafakka” (“The Girl of Silence”), dealt with father-daughter incest, while his 2005 production of Tatsushi Omori’s “Gerumaniumu no Yoru” (“The Whispering of the Gods”) featured graphic scenes of sexual abuse at a Catholic orphanage.

The semiautobiographical “Ningen Shikkaku” was long considered impossible to film — and Arato, unfortunately, shows why.

Ningen Shikkaku
Director Genjiro Arato
Run Time 134 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now Showing
Saru Lock the Movie
    Director Tetsu Maeda
    Run Time 112 minutes
    Language Japanese
    Opens Opens Feb. 27, 2010

    The problem is not that he self-indulgently trashes his source material — a common sin of book-to-movie adapters. Instead, in terms of story and period atmospherics, he is rather faithful to it.

    But his hero, Yozo Oba (Toma Ikuta), comes across as less a budding artist/intellectual tormented by his existence than a rich young fop who has everything handed to him — looks, talent, wealth, status — and casually, carelessly pisses it all away.

    It doesn’t help that Oba is played by cute idol Ikuta — and attracts women with no noticeable effort, like a puppy in a shop window. As did the alcoholic writer hero of Kichitaro Negishi’s far superior “Villon no Tsuma” (“Villon’s Wife,” 2009), which was also based on Dazai’s fiction. In playing that thieving, womanizing character, however, Tadanobu Asano showed the damage his bad deeds do to his soul, as well as to his marriage. Though a besotted lover agrees to commit suicide with him as readily as if he asked her for a light, he is a sympathetic type withal — because his pain is so up-front and real.

    Ikuta, by contrast, rarely goes beyond the shallows of degeneracy. Instead of embodying a crisis of the soul, he resembles a flushed-faced college kid who has chugged too much Asahi Super Dry.

    There to ease his pain (or rather smooth out his hangovers) are the women he treats as his natural due, including the sad-eyed cafe waitress (Shinobu Terajima) he attempts suicide with (he survives, she doesn’t), to the sweet-tempered tobacco shop girl (Satomi Ishihara) he finally marries. But his so-called best friend, the smooth, cynical Horiki (Yusuke Iseya), turns up again to upset his wedded bliss and set him back on the path of self-destruction.

    The movie, however, has already imploded.

    Saru Lock the Movie

    A misfire of a different type is Tetsu Maeda’s action comedy “Saru Lock the Movie,” which is based on a 2009 NTV drama that was in turn based on a best-selling manga by Naoki Serizawa.

    From the cartoony acting, broad slapstick gags and all the pop-eyes and nose-bleeds from the locksmith hero at the sight of nubile females, the target audience would seem to be easily entertained 12-year-old boys. Pickier kids will notice that the characters are two-dimensional caricatures, the thriller plot is not so thrilling and the jokes are corny and stale.

    For all its commotion, the film dissolved in my mind as I was walking out the theater door — it’s the cinematic equivalent of Alzheimer’s.

    The hero, Yataro Sarumaru (Hayato Ichihara) aka “Saru” (monkey), is a “genius” locksmith who may have cool hands, but is in a perpetual lather, particularly about the opposite sex.

    One day, the cops call him to break into a bank where a gang of crooks have taken hostages, including a spunky female cop (Manami Konishi).

    Saru succeeds in his task and the hostages are saved. Then, several days later a gorgeous woman (Manami Higa) comes to his shop, tells him she was one of the hostages — and thanks him profusely for his help. She also has a small request: Due to a memory disorder she has forgotten the combination of the safe at the sports club where she works and wants him to open it. Saru, the chump, believes her, and, soon after he has liberated a big black box from the safe, finds himself being pursued by enraged yakuza.

    From here one incredible plot twist follows another, as Saru spends scene after sweaty scene lugging that box around. Naturally the big mope falls in love with the woman who has gotten him into this mess, for reasons that remain murky. But will love last once she has been unmasked?

    As played by Ichihara, the star of the hit TV baseball drama and movie “Rookies,” Saru is all pure heart, hormonal urges and skilled, if twitchy, fingers. Brains barely enter into it. This is supposed to be charming, but after 15 minutes of his hyperkid act, I was ready to put him back in the box.

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