by Roderick Conway Morris

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'Akires to kame' and 'Inju, la bête dans l'ombre'

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 29 August 2008


Akires to kame Directed by Takeshi Kitano (Japan)

Takeshi Kitano's in-competition latest is excellent in part, but it does not in the end prove entirely satisfactory. The title, drawn from Zeno's paradox, was apparently rather whimsically chosen because the director 'thought the words had an interesting sound for a title,' according to Kitano's production notes.

The film, which is called 'Achilles and the Tortoise' in English, is the third and, in theory, final part of a trilogy dedicated to the 'auto-destruction of the artist' (the first part, 'Takeshis'' was screened in Venice in 2005, and the second part, 'Glory to the Filmmaker!,' was shown here in 2007). It depicts the life of Machisu from childhood to middle age.

Machisu (touchingly portrayed in his childhood phase by Reo Yoshioka), the son of a prosperous businessman and art collector, is a solitary boy who becomes obsessed with drawing, a pursuit encouraged by his indulgent parents, their friends and even his schoolteacher.

But when his father's businesses go bust and he commits suicide with his mistress, Machisu is dumped first with his father's ruffianly farmer brother, then, after his stepmother kills herself, in a orphanage. These sequences, filmed in washed-out color, are a blend of the bleak and the beautiful and artfully evoke both a child's view of the adult world and memories later recalled.

We next meet Machisu as a young man (played by Yurei Yanagi), still obsessed with drawing and painting but getting nowhere. He falls in with a group of lively young aspiring artists, whose action painting experiments become wilder and wilder, until one of their number is killed crashing a car loaded with buckets of paint into a brick wall.

During this period, he meets and marries naïve young Sachiko (Kumiko Aso) who, alas, is even more convinced than Machisu that he is a potential genius. Switching endlessly from style to style in an industrious but directionless fashion, he fails, however hard he tries, to sell anything to the gallery now run by the son of his father's former art dealer, who pours scorn on his efforts and encourages him to pursue ever madder artistic escapades.

Kitano himself plays the middle-aged Machisu, while the painful role of his wife during this period, when his monomania finally destroys his family, is taken by Kanako Higuchi. The scores of pictures that appear during the film were painted by the director himself, who clearly enjoyed making them as abominable as possible.

Even by Kitano's elevated standards, there are some crazy and macabrely humorous scenes in this film. But as a send-up of the contemporary art scene it is too long and repetitive. Kitano's fans can only hope that this trilogy has proved cathartic enough to send him back to other, more rewarding, artistic projects.

Inju, la bête dans l'ombre Directed by Barbet Schroeder (France)

The word 'inju,' the director explains in the publicity material, can mean in Japanese both 'the beast lying in the shadows waiting to pounce on its prey' and 'the beast sleeping within waiting to be awakened.'

Barbet Schroeder spent a full year in Japan working on this in-competition crime story, which translates as 'Inju: The Beast in the Shadow': nine months researching and fixing locations and three months shooting it. He recruited some of the country's most accomplished actors, and the production team was almost entirely local.

The story is of a successful French crime writer, Alex Fayard (Benoît Magimel), who has been inspired by and is an expert on the fictional contemporary Japanese author of a series of very popular violent crime novels, Shundei Oe (heavily and explicitly based on the 1920s and '30s writer Edogawa Rampo, a pseudonym that was the phonetic transcription in Japanese of Edgar Allan Poe).

Fayard goes to Japan to promote his latest book translated into Japanese. During the first television book program on which he appears, Shundei Oe- notorious for having been seen in the flesh only by a single editor, now retired - makes a sensational, unprecedented phone call advising Fayard, whose novels are threatening to knock his own off the top of the best-seller lists, to go back to France at once.

That evening, Fayard's publishers, more than satisfied with the French author's sales, treat him to an expensive outing to a geisha house, where he meets a beautiful young dancer, Tamao (the delectable Lika Minamoto), who just happens to speak fluent French. She summons him to a meeting in a park the following day, and tells him she is being threatened by a young man who proposed to her some years before but whom she has rejected, determined to continue her independent life as a much admired geisha.

It would not be letting any cats out of the bag - although dead cats do figure rather unpleasantly in the story - to reveal that Fayard and Tamao soon realize that Tamao's spurned admirer is none other than Shindue Oe, and find themselves playing a, well, cat-and-mouse game with the seemingly deranged and sadistic author, as he closes in for the kill.

The movie should have had the ingredients of a suspenseful and exotic thriller. Schroeder is an inventive and talented director, but he appears to have become so submerged in local color, and hidebound by the requirement (a condition of French state funding?) to have so many fluent French-speaking characters - which makes everything seem rather artificial - that he loses the plot. And the script, while potentially engaging and sophisticated, is so insufficiently developed that unfortunately the whole enterprise founders.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024