The three recent Japanese features showing at the San Francisco International Film Festival are all astonishing in their ways. An old-fashioned live radio drama is transformed into a high-octane disaster story featuring bursting dams, rocket ships, Chicago gangsters, and a pilot hero named "Donald McDonald" in Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald, director Koki Mitani's debut. The film has some highly amusing moments, mostly involving reaction shots and the frantic improvisations of the radio actors, but, for all the frantic energy expended in last-minute reversals, it can't let well enough alone, especially near the ending. (White subtitles outlined in black might also help the audience better appreciate the punchlines.)
A more effective ensemble production is another first-time effort, Hiroshi Shimizu's Ikinai. The title translates as "won't live," which is exactly what the passengers of this Okinawa tour bus plan to do: die in an accident and collect insurance money to pay back their millions of yen in debts. An incongruously cheerful young girl unwittingly joins the tour and puts the carefully planned mass suicide in jeopardy. The film's confused message about the value of life is combined with a reaffirmation of group solidarity through word games, tourism, and photographs. But the sights of "exotic" Okinawa can't shake these folks from their insularity and despair, since they are simply going through the motions of life; even suicide is a programmed response.
The related idea of taking responsibility for one's own life is more satisfyingly and open-mindedly explored in After Life by Hirokazu Kore-eda (Maboroshi). Unbeknownst to us, upon our deaths we are interviewed and coaxed to come up with a single memory from our lives that we will be stuck with forever, forgetting all else. That memory will be painstakingly reconstructed as a film that we can take with us to the next world. Such a rich premise, rendered with a gentle, generous spirit, creates a parallel universe that addresses the self-serving nature of memory, conflicts between the generations, the bureaucratic structure of postwar Japanese life, and the meaning of love. Don't miss one of the finest Japanese films made in recent years.
-- Frako Loden
Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald: Sunday, April 25, 6 p.m., Kabuki; Monday, April 26, 1 p.m., Kabuki
Ikinai: Tuesday, May 4, 9:30 p.m., Kabuki; Wednesday, May 5, 7 p.m., Kabuki; Thursday, May 6, 7 p.m., PFA
After Life: Saturday, May 1, 6:45, Kabuki; Monday, May 3, 9:10 p.m., Kabuki