Saturday, October 9, 2010

REVIEW: Mt. Tsurugidake

劔岳 点の記 (Tsurugidake: Ten no Ki)

Released: 2009

Daisaku Kimura

Tadanobu Asano
Koji Yakusho
Aoi Miyazaki
Ryuhei Matsuda
Teruyuki Kagawa

Running time:139 min.

Reviewed by Eric Evans

“The mountain can be a god and the mountain can be a demon.”

Man vs. nature may be an enduring theme for writers and filmmakers but to date no one has succeeded in making a great film about either scuba diving or mountaineering, two inherently dramatic and exciting explorative ventures. Daisaku Kimura's "Tsurugidake: Ten no Ki" might come closer than most to that elusive goal—it’s certainly a decent film, full of naturalistic performances and gorgeous scenery—but it tries to split the tonal difference between cultural historicity and personal journey, and in so doing loses a bit of import from the former and much of the vivacity and interest from the latter.

The year is 1907. Tadanobu Asano stars as Shibasaki, an expert in geographical measurement and cartography tasked by the Japanese government with charting the elevations and distances on and around the remote, forbidding peaks of Mt. Tsurugidake before a competing group of rich (and significantly) Westernized hobbyists led by Kojima (the never-more-aloof Toru Nakamura) can do so on their own. This is a matter of national pride, and despite Shibasaki’s reservations he accepts the mission. He visits a famous mountaineer who tried and failed the ascent (a fine if undistinguished cameo by Koji Yakusho) for advice then assembles his team, led by local guide Uji (Yeruyuki Kagawa, reliably terrific in the film’s best role). The bulk of the film dramatizes the successes and setbacks over a span of some months, with weather and hubris complicating the mission in equal parts.

Coming as soon as they do after the rise of the merchant class, the events in the story are framed in such a way as to underscore the uncertainty and conflict in Japanese society at the time. The military leadership doesn’t invite Shibasaki to risk life and limb so much as berate and order him to do so, and framing their near-desperate eagerness as nationalism seems odd considering the fact that the competing group of wealthy thrill-seekers are all Japanese. More specifically, they are nouveau-riche merchant-class Japanese using all Western outfitting and tools, and the prospect of losing out to such as them has the old-school military establishment in a tizzy. Shibasaki is caught between the past and the future, and tasked with what was at the time a near-impossible goal.

Asano’s filmography has its share of quiet, intense men but his Shibasaki is a Clark Kent with no secret identity: a cipher of sorts on which people can read heroism, attention to duty, or near disinterest. In some ways Shibasaki is a quintessentially Japanese character, his stoic resolve untouched by either disaster or triumph. He’s the ideal foil for Kagawa’s Uji, whose every thought is writ clear across his face. Uji, a farmer and mountaineer in a small remote town, is the perfect unrefined bumpkin: He’ll laugh heartily and cry openly. Furthering the film’s examination of the inner conflict of Japanese culture in the early 20th century, Uji represents the rural Japan still connected to the land and the weather trying to work in concert with an urban Japan that is leaving it further and further behind. His relationship with Shibasaki, who clearly represents refinement and city life, is the heart of the film. Kagawa somehow plays Uji as open and expressive without infantalizing him, and has the film’s best—only!—emotional scenes. Certainly it’s the only onscreen relationship with any impact. The sense of rivalry we’re meant to feel between Shibasaki and his rich nemesis Kojima never quite materializes; Their eventual mutual respect is not a shock because their conflict is restricted to occasional glances and a single “I’ll beat you to the top” declaration.

The movie is perhaps most notable for being the directorial debut of Kimura, age 70. With a cinematography career now in its fourth decade, it was perhaps with a wink that he won the “Best Newcomer” Blue Ribbon award for the film. As far as directorial efforts go, it—like its protagonist Shibasaki—is steadfast and constant, showing little variation regardless of what happens. Kimura certainly knows how to frame a shot: the film looks gorgeous, and various scenes showcase such natural beauty that they’d put anything on the Discovery Channel to shame. His camera barely moves and when it does that movement is minimal, strictly to follow the action and usually at medium or long distance. This austerity creates a sense of scope and serves aspects of the story well but essentially blunts the perceived danger of the journey. When brash young Ikuta (a barely used Ryuhei Matsuda) foolishly risks his life to attempt access up a steep rocky slope, the lack of either closeups or edits or any camera movement robs the scene of tension. In opting for an almost documentary style Kimura adds a flavor of authenticity but lessens the drama, and many documentary filmmakers go much further to make the risks and dangers of their subjects feel real to the viewer. Every effort is made to recreate the century-old locales and gear and the movie looks terrific, it’s just not exciting in the least.

The film’s all-star cast, tone, and subject matter all point to awards bait and the film’s eventual haul in statuettes is impressive. But it’s more than just a fishing attempt for critical acclaim, as the final box office would indicate—audiences embraced the film to a degree I wouldn’t have guessed, leading it to a very respectable US$25mil+. Despite its tone and somewhat sluggish 2-hour-plus running time, the film is buoyed by yet another terrific performance by Kagawa. The story jumps to life whenever he’s on screen, and to contrast this performance with his turns in other recent roles (a staggering 8 films in 2009 and seven in 2010, plus a starring role in this year’s 48-week Taiga drama “Ryomaden”) is to chart an amazing range of work.

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