Veteran Mitsuko Baisho adds class to Counterfeit as Kageko Sada, a primary school teacher in post-war Japan struggling with the problem shared by the populace of that era - survival. Sada is a pillar of her community and an outstanding human being, taking in a mentally diminished boy and caring for him like a son. When a local chancer (Toshiyuki Itakura) comes up with a plan to counterfeit the new 1000-yen bill, her initial repugnance is worn down by the temptation of re-stocking the empty shelves in the school library, and the gentle persuasion of her betters, in particular local worthy Toura.
Based on a true story, Counterfeit apparently takes liberties with the source material and yet relays events in a prosaic, matter-of-fact manner. Toura, (a study in acting by-not-acting from the classy Yasunori Danta) jaded by his wartime experience, states that their mission is not to make fake notes, but real money. The sophistry involved is thought-provoking, but punctures the drama. You know that when the crew agree to distribute their flawed first print run, they are sunk.
Baisho and Danta are matched in their acting pedigree by Jun Murakami as the local paper-maker, an artisan going after perfection in that quintessentially Japanese way. Masaki Miura puts in a star turn as formal Imperial Army heavy Ogasawara, all flint and thuggery in contrast to Sada's gentility and philanthropy. The scenes featuring Ogasawara and Toura, old-world military obsequious obedience met by new-era weary indulgence on the part of Toura, are one of the film's understated triumphs.
However, the film's main failure is Itakura, yet another example of a TV comedian floundering out of his depth on the big screen. At his demise, called on to plead convincingly for his life, Itakura hams it up. Debutant director Kimura comes from the same comedic stable. The comedy works well but perhaps high drama (and resisting the urge to cast his genokai underlings) is where Kimura needs to work on his craft.
Plotting is another area that could have been firmed up. The fake notes go into circulation and are discovered immediately, with very little tension squeezed or time spent on the 'will-they-get-away-with-it' scenario. The climax also veers off-course in terms of tone. Sada has been humanitarian throughout, her actions driven by an altruism towards her charges. And yet as she faces life in prison and the sure knowledge of estrangement from her handicapped adopted son, she is all smiles and giggles.
The arena is handled competently, and we get a strong sense of the desperation of the times, and the lingering respect for military and aristocratic authority. The bottom line is the dramatic potential of the story could have been mined to much greater effect. The docu-drama trope of subtitling every new scene and character, while a mainstay of contemporary Japanese cinema, still jars. All in all, Kimura looks like he might be one to watch in the future, if not quite compelling yet in the present.
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