The latest in a sudden flurry of movies by 76-year-old Japanese veteran Koji Wakamatsu, small-town seaside drama The Millennial Rapture (Sennen no Yuraku) represents a change of pace for the long-time maverick after harder-hitting, politically charged affairs that have met with mixed fortunes overseas.
At home, box office will be driven more by the presence of pin-ups Shota Sometani and Tanroh Ishida in prominent supporting roles than Wakamatsu's name or Shinobu Terajima's affecting central performance as a sympathetic midwife. The enduring renown of Kenji Nakagami's original book, titled A Thousand Years of Happiness in English, will, however, count as a plus.
But foreign viewers unfamiliar with either author or director are unlikely to be won over by this tepidly overlong affair, Wakamatsu's third feature to premiere in 2012 after Petrel Hotel Blue and 11/25: The Day Mishima Chose His Own Fate, and even festivals favorably disposed to the director may by now feel a little bombarded with product.
Nakagami's 1982 original is a six-story compilation set in a fictional, remote coastal town and populated by members of the buraku underclass of whom the author was himself a member. There's no mention of this fascinating social background in Mari Ide's screenplay, which instead emphasises the accursed fate of men belonging to a particular clan, the Nakamoto. "With their looks, women can't keep away from them. And they all die young," sighs Oryu (Terajima), who has helped bring several such individuals into the world.
On her death bed, or rather death futon, the now elderly Oryu recalls two particularly memorable Nakamoto boys: incorrigible lothario Hanzo (Sometani) and equally incorrigible thief Miyoshi (Ishida), who claims that he only feels "alive when I'm stealing or shooting up." Having lost her only child in infancy, Oryu comes to regard first Hanzo and then Miyoshi as her surrogate sons, gently steering them toward righteousness but aware that the "foul blood" of their "noble yet unholy clan" is likely to win out in the end.
Wakamatsu makes it clear that the film's story is largely a visualization of the aged Oryu's unreliable memories and speculations, as signaled by hazily non-specific period detail in the production design and costuming. Her focus shifts somewhat abruptly from Hanzo to Miyoshi around the halfway mark before a coda featuring a third lad who provides the lady with long-overdue sexual fulfilment.
This sequence is one of several featuring nudity and/or violence that renders The Millennial Rapture firmly adults-only fare, though Wakamatsu exercises tactful restraint in their presentation and is very much on "best behavior" compared with the excesses of his most acclaimed recent outings, WW2-themed Caterpillar (2010), which landed Terajima with the best actress prize at Berlin, and gruelling three-hour epic United Red Army (2005).
Indeed, it's hard to know what attracted this director to this particular material, especially as he avoids the edgy bunraku aspects which remain somewhat controversial issues in modern-day Japan. He shows little flair for the genre in a visually undistinguished affair that makes only cursory use of some spectacularly scenic backdrops. Fatally, neither Sometani nor Ishida exude much of the necessary charisma that supposedly makes them so irresistible to the opposite sex, and splitting the narrative between the duo results in a momentum-sapping, broken-backed feel.
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Orizzonti)
Production company: Wakamatsu Production
Cast: Shinobu Terajima, Shota Sometani, Tanroh Ishida, Shiro Sano, Kengo Kora, Sosuke Takaoka
Director: Koji Wakamatsu
Screenwriter: Mari Ide, based on the book by Kenji Nakagami
Producers: Koji Wakamatsu, Hiroko Kon, Noriko Ozaki
Executive producers: Ozaki Noriko
Director of photography: Tomohiko Tsuji
Production designer: Tomohiro Matsumoto
Music: Hashiken, Mizuki Nakamura
Costume designer: Masae Miyamoto
Editor: Kamiko Sakamoto
Sales agent: Celluloid Dreams, Paris
No MPAA rating, 118 minutes