Hollywood constantly remakes and reworks its old product — “Avatar” references everything from “Dances with Wolves” to the Tarzan movies — but sometimes it falls out of love with stories, even ones once widely popular.

The outlaw-on-the-run-with-a-strange- kid story, which Kevin Costner turned into the 1993 hit “A Perfect World,” is one example. Perhaps American audiences — long fed horror news stories of child abductions by pedophile creeps — cannot bring themselves to see such films any more, even the most innocent, without involuntary shudders. That is not yet the case in Japan. Actor/director Hideo Sakaki’s new film “Yukai Rhapsody” (“The Accidental Kidnapper”) takes inspiration from “A Perfect World” and others like it — but then injects a comic spin.

This could have been a recipe for another cutesy, weepy Japanese dramady, with everyone mugging away. Instead, Sakaki walks the comedy/drama line with energy, craft and heart. The laughs and tears are all of a piece, while the story tweaks genre formulas in smart, why-didn’t-I-think-of-that? ways.

Yukai Rhapsody (The Accidental Kidnapper)
Director Hideo Sakaki
Run Time 111 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens April 3, 2010

An ex-con, Hideyoshi Date (Katsunori Takahashi), mulls over his life — no job, no wife, no family, no money — and decides to end it all amid the cherry blossoms. But after his half-hearted attempts at suicide end in failure — he notices that a child (Roi Hayashi) has crept into his car. All of 6 years old, he has run away from home, he tells Date, and has no intention of going back.

This gives Date a bad idea: He will fake a kidnapping and extract a cool ¥50 million from the boy’s obviously loaded (from the looks of their house) parents. He borrows the runaway’s cell phone and, telling him he’ll help him with his great escape, makes the fatal call.

At first the boy’s spacey mom (You) doesn’t believe that her precious Densuke has been kidnapped, but then she freaks when she realizes the kidnapper is not kidding. Soon black-suited men are swarming through the house and setting up electronic gear for locating and tracking the kidnapper. Their boss is Densuke’s glowering dad (Sho Aikawa) — and the men are not cops, but gangsters. Date has signed his own death warrant.

However, the kidnapper doesn’t know this yet and, recalling advice about the kidnapping game from an old con (Takashi Sasano) he met in prison, he gets his hands on the ransom without taking a single bullet. There’s just one problem: Densuke doesn’t want his little adventure to end. In fact, he and Date have become great buddies.

But business is business — or is it?

There is action aplenty, comic and otherwise, supplied by not only the pursuing gangsters, but also a streetwise cop (Eiichiro Funakoshi) and his excitable junior partner (Koji Yamamoto), who wonder what the gang is in a lather about.

The story’s focus, though, is the relationship between the ex-con and the boy. Densuke is about what you would expect — a brash, extroverted kid who thinks nothing of bonding with a strange ojisan (“uncle” or middle-age man). Playing him, newcomer Roi Hayashi steals scene after scene without a trace of effort — or the annoying preciousness of the usual acting prodigy.

As the ex-con Date, Takahashi exudes the beaten down, lonely air of a man who has spent his best years behind bars, but he also plays straight man to his pintsize costar with spot-on, spontaneous-looking comic reactions. Their best scenes together feel unscripted, while being more than the sum of their gags.

Densuke, who has led a sheltered life in his scary father’s shadow, learns from this rough-edged ojisan about the basics of being a guy — and being free. Meanwhile, Date starts to regret missing out on fatherhood, while knowing he can only taste its joys fleetingly now.

The feelings these two develop for each other emerge naturally from quarrels, escapades — and quiet moments spent chomping on convenience-store food as they look at the stars. Think of Huck Finn and Jim transposed to Japan and sitting on, not a raft, but the back of an old station wagon. (But forget the films based on Mark Twain’s classic, which are all disappointments.)

Sakaki almost didn’t get this film released. One of his supporting actors, Manabu Oshio, was arrested on drug charges last August, stirring up a huge scandal and leading the distributor to indefinitely delay the film’s opening.

Sakaki reshot Oshio’s scenes, playing his computer-whiz gangster character himself — and now it has finally hit the theaters. Rhapsodic news indeed.

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