Kôji Yakusho is one of Japan’s best known actors, having performed in films as diverse as Juzo Itami’s “Tampopo,” Masayuki Suo’s international megahit “Shall We Dance?,” Shohei Imamura’s Palme d’Or-winning “The Eel” and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s “Babel.” In 2009, he sat in the director’s chair for the first time to make the fascinatingly unique “Toad’s Oil,” which I was lucky enough to catch at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival.
Yakusho stars as Takuro Yazawa, a lively man who makes his living as a day trader, constantly checking his rows of computer screens to keep himself updated on the millions of yen he can gain or lose within a day. He lives in a giant, mostly empty mansion with his wife Erumi (Satomi Kobayashi) and son Takuya (Eita), who has his heart set on becoming an astronaut. The family is joined by Saburo Akiba, a gentle-natured young man who comes to live with them after leaving a juvenile correction facility. Their peaceful lives are suddenly disrupted when Takuya is hit by a car and goes into a coma, initiating a period of change and self-discovery for all of them.
One of the most remarkable things about “Toad’s Oil” is the fine balance between comedy and drama that it gracefully maintains throughout its duration. Despite the grim turn of events that the plot veers towards, the overall tone of the film is light and engaging, helped considerably by Yakusho’s onscreen energy as the constantly entertaining Takuro, who often plays with his impressive arsenal of BB guns and screams with glee whenever he loses (yes, loses) money in his business ventures. One interesting storyline involves Takuya’s girlfriend Hikari, who frequently calls and e-mails him. After he goes into a coma, Takuro happens upon his cell phone and, posing as his son, simply keeps the correspondence going. The split-screened phone conversations between Takuro and the unsuspecting Hikari have a certain sweetness to them as the two teasingly banter and make up codenames for each other (astoundingly, these scenes never feel creepy in any way), but beneath each one lurks the devastating truth and potential disaster of discovery. The result is an unusual sort of screen suspense that makes it clear just how much Yakusho and co-writers Hideko Nakata and Urara make you care about the characters and their emotional well being.
When discussing the film after the screening, chief Pow-Wow editor Chris MaGee and I agreed that it has the same messy quality that Shohei Imamura’s films and Haruki Murakami’s novels are known for. As in those works, the storyline doesn’t proceed on a straight course so much as wanders in various directions, following the characters as they adapt in their individual ways to the changes brought about by Takuya’s accident. The viewers are consequently treated to a jumble of scenes running the gamut from funny to contemplative, including a piggy-backed walk through a peaceful forest, a lunch in front of Mount Fuji and a prolonged fight with a black bear. Interspersed through the film are scenes featuring a man and his wife from Takuro’s youth who represent a more traditional and fulfilling way of life, merrily entertaining children and hawking toad’s oil, a supposedly magical healing ointment.
“Toad’s Oil” proves to be an accomplished demonstration of Yakusho’s newfound directorial talents. He makes great use of his talented assortment of actors, which include newcomers Fumi Nikaidô as the spirited Hikari and K-1 champion fighter Junichi Sawayashiki as Saburo. The cinematography by Toyomichi Kurita is amazingly crisp and clear, filling the film with gorgeous color. Also, Yakusho manages to harness a refreshing vitality every step of the way, and while he uses some elements that could be considered indie movie clichés (such as a cross-country trek undertaken in a square-shaped mobile home), they miraculously never feel borrowed or contrived. Some additional cutting in the editing room would probably help it, but in its current form “Toad’s Oil” still very much succeeds as an entertaining, offbeat and heart-felt debut for what will hopefully be a productive filmmaking career for Yakusho.