One of the more baffling and maddening aspects of the pop music scene here for a lot of foreign observers, especially those who write about it for the English-language media, is the long-continuing and now overwhelming popularity of girl idol groups, whether or not their names end with “48.” For the past three decades or so, I’ve read nothing but bad reviews of idols from outlander critics, who typically regard the entire idol phenomenon as another example of Japanese weirdness on the same level as maid cafes and their knapsack-wearing otaku patrons.

That weirdness is on full display in Yukihiro Kato’s gory action musical “Idol is Dead,” which features the idol ensemble BiS (Brand-new Idol Society). After a diminutive club hostess ends up tossing three members of a punkish idol group to their deaths in a street (or rather bridge) brawl, she recruits two of her mates to form a cover group to hide her crime. The ensuing action is bloody and cartoony, but the film entertainingly illustrates the strong, if twisted, bond that develops between idols and their more obsessed fans. You may not like idols more after seeing this film (though BiS on stage is infectiously energetic), but you will better understand their business model.

One who is trying to change that model, at least as far her own career is concerned, is Atsuko Maeda. A former leader of AKB48, the most popular of the girl idol groups, Maeda has focused on film acting since “graduating” (i.e., retiring) in August 2012.

Seventh Code
Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa
Run Time 60 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Jan. 11, 2014

The characters she plays, from the kindly book store clerk in Nobuhiro Yamashita’s “Kueki Ressha (The Drudgery Train)” to the grumpy slacker in the same director’s “Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium),” may vary in temperament and personality, but one thing they are definitely not is the cutesy, sexy idol type.

Maeda departs even further from the stereotypical idol persona in “Seventh Code,” a 60-minute action movie/music video directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and made by a consortium that includes AKS, the talent agency behind AKB48 and its sister acts. Premiered at last year’s Rome Film Festival, “Seventh Code” won a best director prize for Kurosawa and a best technical contribution prize for editor Koichi Takahashi.

Not having seen all the other competition entries, I don’t know how much Kurosawa deserved this honor, but I do know it probably wasn’t for the story, a trifle with a clever, if hard-to-swallow, thriller twist. Set in Vladivostok, a down-at-the-heels Russian port city, it begins with a young Japanese woman, Akiko (Maeda), dragging her suitcase through its atmospheric, vaguely sinister streets.

She is desperately searching for a man named Matsunaga (Ryohei Suzuki), whom she met briefly in Tokyo a month earlier, but when they finally reconnect, he claims not to remember her and, after warning her to “never trust people in a foreign country,” makes an unannounced exit.

Akiko soon sees what he means when she is hustled off the street by strange men and ends up in a wasteland in a burlap bag, stripped of all her possessions but a handful of coins. Undeterred in her mission to locate Matsunaga, she finds shelter and a waitressing job at a Japanese restaurant run by a scuffling expat named Saito (Hiroshi Yamamoto) and his leggy Chinese lover (Aissy), who speaks fluent Japanese and is sympathetic to her plight.

Then one day Akiko spots a familiar car and runs in pursuit, together with a flustered Saito as her guide. Is Matsunaga inside?

I won’t reveal the answer — or any other of the surprising turns the plot takes — but from this point on the film shifts from relative realism to a mix of standard action-movie tropes and dreamy, dread-laden sequences reminiscent of Kurosawa’s more fully realized essays into horror and sci-fi. Some of the images, such as a procession of long orange-and-white curtains fluttering in the windows of Matsunaga’s richly appointed lair, have a sort of queasy grandeur, but the film’s various parts don’t quite add up, save as a cool promo for Maeda’s new single, which is inserted in a performance clip toward the end.

Maeda is not about to become a new action superstar from her work in “Seventh Code,” but it might well extend her appeal beyond her AKB48 fan base. In contrast to the many idol/actresses who turn on the charm every time the camera turns in their direction, Maeda is completely both in her character and in the moment. When Akiko gives chase, she runs flat out in Olympic-sprinter-like determination. Arriving at Saito’s restaurant after a long traipse, she wolfs down food like a hungry kid at Mom’s table.

Everything she does, in fact, has this directness and lack of self-consciousness, which helps make Maeda’s performance of her single, a pulsing ballad titled “Seventh Code,” feel soulful rather than synthetic — the entire point of the film. At the same time, she is still able to melt male hearts with a single piercing glance from the back of a pickup truck.

Despite their detractors, the idols with the longest post-music careers have never been idiots about their image — and Maeda, even as she changes hers, is a good example of how to do it right.

Fun fact: Both “Idol is Dead” and “Seventh Code” open for short theatrical runs on Jan. 11. The DVD and Blu-ray for “Idol is Dead” go on sale on Jan. 8, while Maeda’s single is out March 5.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.


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