Actors who direct and star in their own films may be motivated by something other than vanity, but they usually manage to make themselves look cool — or at least cooler than they would have if someone else had been in the director’s chair.
Exhibit A is actor/director Takeshi Kitano, whose cop and gangster heroes effortlessly dominate everyone else on the screen, whether with their personalities or fists.
In directing his first film, “Gama no Abura” (“Toad Oil”), Koji Yakusho goes in a different direction. Almost as much in demand abroad as he is at home, Yakusho has starred in everything from the 1996 international hit comedy “Shall We Dance?,” later remade with Richard Gere in Yakusho’s role as a ballroom- dancing salaryman, to Shohei Imamura’s Cannes Palme d’Or winner “Unagi” (“The Eel,” 1998), in which Yakusho played a mercurial ex-con, and Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s Oscar-nominated “Babel” (2006), in which he played the father of Rinko Kikuchi’s troubled hearing-impaired teen.
With this sort of filmography, Yakusho could have cast himself as God in his directorial debut — but he instead chose to play Takuro, a money- and ego-mad day trader with the mentality of a rambunctious 7-year-old. That is, a character less cool than borderline contemptible. Also, instead of sucking the air out of the room with his star ego, Yakusho is generous to a fault, giving some of the best lines and scenes to his cast, including two total newcomers. Though scripted by Urara, who also worked on “Unagi” and Kitano’s Venice Golden Lion winner “Hana-bi” (“Fireworks”) (1997), “Gama no Abura” is not prestige festival bait, but rather entertainment that aims for the proverbial laugh and tear. At the same time, it is what Hollywood refers to as a “passion project” — that is, a film that Yakusho and his collaborators have labored on for years, with little expectation of big box-office rewards.
It begins with Takuro raking in the yen — and celebrating by shooting off toy pistols, while his ever-patient wife, Teruko (Satomi Kobayashi) and hardworking college-age son, Takuya (Eita), look on indulgently. Then one day, Takuya has an accident that puts him in a coma, and Takuro finds himself distracted from his money games by unfamiliar emotions he barely knew existed.
Soon after he answers a call on Takuya’s cell phone from his son’s full-of-beans girlfriend, Hikari (Fumi Nikaido), and feeling playful (or perverse), answers as Takuya. Giddy with delight at hearing his voice, Hikari answers back — and soon they are bantering away. Meanwhile, Takuya’s hulking, good-natured pal, Saburo (Junichi Sawayashiki), lies by his hospital bed and, staring up at the ceiling, talks to him of past times and present regrets, even though Takuya remains as silent as a stone, but will he stay silent forever?
Enough to say that Takuro and Saburo go on a road trip together in Takuro’s big American-style camper, leaving Teruko behind to hold the fort (or rather their humongous mansion, built in the style of a Roman villa). Takuya is also with them in spirit, though he doesn’t make his presence immediately known.
How does gama no abura come into it? As a lonely orphaned boy, Takuro met a gama-no-abura seller (Toru Masuoka) and his wife (Kobayashi again) who comforted him — and remain in his memory as timeless, ageless guardians. Also, the seller’s routine, in which he cut himself with a sword and healed himself with his own product, while spinning out a line of grandiose patter, worked a kind of magic on Takuro. A magic that, against all logic, resurfaces in the present, when he is at his most desperate.
“The gama-no-abura salesman and his wife don’t live in this world — they are like angels,” a rather frazzled-looking, if accommodating and patient Yakusho commented at the office of the film’s production company, Pyramid Film. “They also add humor to the story, as well as offering hope. If we had just stuck to the realistic story about the father losing his son, it would have been just sad and the movie would not be so interesting.”
Though Yakusho did not write the script, he contributed ideas and even incidents from his own boyhood, including one in which the young Takuro cleans his family’s butsudan (Buddhist altar) after the gama-no-abura seller tells him it will comfort the spirits dwelling there.
“When I think of death, I can’t help thinking of butsudan,” Yakusho commented. “From the time I was a kid I’ve had an image of it being the gateway to another world, with the ihai (Buddhist memorial tablets) being dead people. When I was little and realized that there was an end to human life — that I would some day die — I would get scared and crawl inside my futon. (laughs) I would sleep near the butsudan.”
But as personal as the film is for Yakusho, it also, he feels, “has a theme — death — that is universal.”
“The film has nothing to do with a particular religion,” he adds. “I’m pretty sure Japanese will feel something in common (with the hero’s story). I don’t know how foreign audiences will react to it, but if they can relate it to their own lives, I think they will understand it as well.”
The film’s cast ranges from Toru Masuoka, a veteran character actor Yakusho has known for decades, to Fumi Nikaido, a 14-year-old model making her screen debut, and Junichi Sawayashiki, a champion K-1 fighter who had never acted before.
“The (two) newcomers were a real plus for the film,” Yakusho explains. “Actors are really afraid to work with children and animals. (laughs) They bring a sort of tension to the set. But the two newcomers in this film had something natural in their personalities that was just right for their roles. They have a freshness in their performances that veterans don’t. They have something that veterans have lost.”
Yakusho’s own character — the day trader Takuro — has complexities that aren’t immediately apparent, including his conflicted feelings about his family, whom he both neglects and deeply needs. He is also isolated in a bubble of wealth and ego, but has enough sense — or rather baseline humanity, to break out of it.
“The hero is a man who thinks that money can solve everything, but he finally encounters problems that money can’t solve, such as the dissolution of his family and the death of his son,” Yakusho comments. “The women, on the other hand, have big hearts — they support the men. The “gama-no-abura” couple is an example. The guy is still not that good at his act, even though he’s had hundreds of years to perfect it (laughs). His wife, though, is still cheering him on (laughs). She gives him the courage to go on. That is also true of the modern-day couple — the day trader and his wife.”
Yakusho has already lined up his next film — a period drama. (“I can’t announce the details yet,” he says, apologetically.) “Gama no Abura,” though, has a special meaning for him, as well as offering a quirky, freeform platform for the full display of his talents. “I want it to be a movie that gives people energy,” he says.
Given all the energy on the screen, mostly supplied by the ever-animated Yakusho, he needn’t worry.