Film / Reviews

'Kako: My Sullen Past': Mikiko, the prodigal bomb maker

Would anyone in Hollywood now green-light a film with a quirky middle-aged heroine whose passion is making and detonating bombs? Especially one with no apologies for her explosive past, human collateral included? I can imagine the tremors at the pitch meeting when someone says the dreaded word “terrorist.”

Yet playwright/director Shiro Maeda has not only scripted and shot “Kako: My Sullen Past,” his new film featuring a bomb maker, but has also adroitly steered it between the rocks of twee comedy and furrow-browed social drama.

Seeing the film for the second time, at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan with Maeda and star Fumi Nikaido present, I was struck again by its one-of-a-kind sensibility, blending borderline surrealism and offbeat observational humor. I also found new layers within the layers of funny bits and punchy dialogue, revealing connections and meanings that go beyond easy laughs at the characters’ many oddities, if not the bomb maker Mikiko’s mysteries.

Kako: My Sullen Past (Fukigen na Kako)
Rating
Run Time 120 mins
Language Japanese
Opens JUNE 25

Mikiko (Kyoko Koizumi) has been long presumed dead by her extended family in Kita Shinagawa, a Tokyo neighborhood crisscrossed by boat-filled canals, over which arch concrete-and-steel bridges. Her niece, Kako (Nikaido), the sullen teen of the title, is cynical about the future. “You’ll end up like everyone else. … The world will always be boring,” she tells an aspiring rock star. She spends hours of her summer vacation by a canal, looking for a probably nonexistent crocodile that devoured a neighbor’s baby many years ago. Kako is also obsessed with the long-ago case of another child, Yasunori, who was kidnapped and never found. Why this fixation on the past?

Meanwhile, at the family restaurant, Kako’s phlegmatic mom (Kumi Hyodo) shells beans with a strangely limp, as-yet unnamed baby strapped to her back, while her ineffectual dad (Itsuji Itao) tries vainly to look busy. Also helping in the kitchen are her acerbic grandmother (Masayo Umezawa), sexy bar hostess aunt (Mei Kurokawa) and the latter’s inquisitive young daughter (Mochika Yamada). The chef is Mr. Nomura (Ahmad Ali), a portly, kindly foreign chap.

Then one day, Mikiko walks in, very much alive, and still on the lam.

This is the film’s true beginning, with Mikiko serving as a catalyst to not only the revelation of secrets, her own foremost among them, but also the reasons behind Kako’s obsessions and discontent. Forced to accept her long-lost aunt as her not-so-temporary roommate — fearing detection by unspecified pursuers, Mikiko refuses to move out — Kako is resentful, suspicious and curious. Who is this woman, so cool and collected but so infuriatingly unforthcoming? A strange man with piercing eyes (Kengo Kora), who Kako sees in Mikiko’s company, may have answers.

The twists of the plot, which are not hard to unravel, are less interesting than the vexed relationship between Mikiko and Kako, who are more alike than Kako can bear to admit. Nikaido plays the permanently teed-off teen with a wry detachment that makes the character more amusing than annoying. But Kako’s quixotic search for the truth is also more than a joke. Her eyes, so skeptical and observant, blaze from the screen with an inner fire. As Mikiko, veteran Koizumi is the still, self-contained counter to Kako’s petulant turbulence, and her dry sophistication and quiet force of character are more than a match for her co-star.

Mikiko is, we see, less a terrorist than a kind of philosopher and artist: Her medium is the bomb and, inevitably, the explosion. Sound bizarre? I would have thought so too, but in the dream-like, originally imagined world of “Kako: My Sullen Past,” where the odd is the ordinary, it starts to make sense. A bomb can destroy, but, in Mikiko’s eyes, it can also have a kind of nobility. Just don’t try it at home, kids.

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