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In only the year and a half since exploding on to the feature film scene with his shocking portrait of alienated youth, Helpless (1996), the prolific Aoyama Shinji has already turned out three more movies, including his new one, An Obsession. At a time when young directors are lucky to shoot one film every few years, if at all, the fact all four are outstanding works is testimony to Aoyama's amazing craftsmanship as a filmmaker.
Working in the gangster and action genres has helped find him work, but like the best of the 1950s American B-movie directors, Aoyama has consistently presented a personal vision between the de rigeur action scenes, one which has made him one of the most promising filmmakers today. His touch has ranged from the disturbingly cold in the violent Helpless to the comically grandiose in Wild Life. But in all his films, he has focused on the alienation of his own generation--youths without a secure sense of identity or moral values who are engaged in a desperate search for meaningful contact with others.
An Obsession is Aoyama's remake for the 1990s of Akira Kurosawa's Stray Dog ("Nora inu," 1949). The basic plot situation is the same: a cop, after losing his gun to a killer, sets out on a search for the criminal who in the end is all too disturbingly similar to the hero. Under Kurosawa's humanistic world view, Stray Dog presented the fundamentally shared nature of Japanese suffering amidst the Occupation and postwar poverty. An Obsession, however, is different.
The film begins with a fin-de-siecle, apocalyptic sense of insanity which Kurosawa's humanism could never tolerate: The detective Saga (Ishibashi Ryo) doesn't merely have his gun stolen (as in Stray Dog)--he is first shot by an assassin who had just killed an Aum-like cult leader--and then loses his gun to Shimano (Suzuki Kazuma), a nihilistic genius who is terminally ill and begins offing people not to survive, but as part of his own disturbing design.
Saga's search for Shimano is doubled by the search for human contact that both men share. After he is shot, Saga's wife, Rie (Nagashima Eiko), divorces the workaholic husband who basically never gave her a care, leaving Saga to wonder about the meaning of personal relationships. His doubts over whether two people can really come together in love are deepened through conversations with Shimano's ex-girlfriend Kimiko (Toyama Kyoko), who tells him of Shimano's conviction that love can only be proved in death.
It is these two couples, more than Saga's obsessive pursuit of Shimano, which occupy the film's philosophical center. Shimano and Kyoko represent a young generation with no place to go and no values to call their own--the only certainty they can find is in a love solely verified by the mutual decision to die. Death permeates their world and that of the streets of their town as eerie death squads dressed in anti-radiation gear travel around and execute people at the edges of the film's frame.
Aoyama sympathizes with the young couple's nihilistic lack of direction, but as in all his films, it is the confrontation with death that prompts his heroes eventually to choose life and their own moral basis for living. In the end Saga and Rie present the grim and hard, but still hopeful reality of human contact. This could be called Aoyama's humanism, the nitty-gritty fact of being fallibly human that he so brilliantly evoked in Two Punks ("Chinpira," 1996). It is not, however, the universalistic humanism of Kurosawa. In Aoyama's world, we all begin alone and must create our own morals through confrontation with death and the need for human relationships.
Aoyama thus presents in An Obsession a message both personal and generationally relevant. But if one were to find fault with this film, the least strong of the four so far, it is precisely in its philosophically schematic nature. Aoyama has a strongly allegorical side--which is is often abstract and unrealistic. He is at his best when that tendency is tempered by the grim humanity of his characters. In An Obsession, however, symbols like the death squads stand out too much as symbols, conflicting in their nature with the realism of relationships like that of Saga and Rie. An Obsession being his first original screenplay since Helpless, one wonders if Aoyama wouldn't be better served working with stories or screenplays written by a third party (as in Chinpira and Wild Life) to help tone down the allegory, and work out his own cinematic contact with the Other.
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