キツツキと雨 (Kitsutsuki to Ame)
Running time: 129 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
There are two kinds of Japanese films that you never think would cross paths: the small town "gambatte" heart-warmer and the minimalist, downbeat indie comedy. One appeals to families heading to movie theatres and the other (in a lot of cases) is made to appeal to young, disaffected Japanese youth. They'd be cinematic oil and water, right? Well, at least most would think so, but one film that has managed to combine these polar opposite genres into a satisfying whole is "The Woodsman and the Rain". What makes this... well, minimalist "gambatte" indie heart-warmer... truly interesting is how it accomplishes this not just from behind the camera, but also by the combination of talent in front of the camera.
Katsu (Koji Yakuzho) is a 60-year-old lumberjack who spends his days at one with nature in the hills and mountains of rural Japan. It's a life that seems to suit this taciturn and pragmatic man. As he methodically (and with great respect) harvests lumber he doesn't need to talk or think about his late wife or his contentious relationship with his slacker son (Kengo Kora). Out in the forest life is uneventful... for the most part. One afternoon Katsu is stopped by a member of the producer of an indie zombie movie (Kanji Furutachi) and asked to refrain from chainsawing until they finish shooting. It's an unlikely event, but it forms the heart of the film.
Soon the producer is asking Katsu to drive them around the area as he, and a sulky, socially withdrawn young man named Koichi (Shun Oguri), scout locations for the film. Katsu really wants no part of this crazy endeavor, and he almost instantly takes a dislike to Koichi. It isn't until Katsu drives this limp young man to the train station one night that he not only learns the full plot of the film (a near future Japan in which all but 6,000 humans battle it out with zombies), but also that Koichi is no lowly crew member. He's the film's screenwriter and director! Soon Katsu is being enticed by the magic of moviemaking, but most importantly it's in 25-year-old Koichi that Katsu has a chance at reassessing his own relationship with his 20-something son. Soon both men are feeding each others lives and creativity, all the while battling zombies.
What director Shuichi Okita, the man who brought us 2009's gentle comedy "Chef of the South Polar", has done "The Woodsman and the Rain" is have one of Japan's most respected actors, Koji Yakusho, portray a character that is little seen on screens these days and contrast him with a character seen regularly in indie Japanese productions. Katsu is closer to the calloused-handed, steely-eyed alpha males portrayed by Ken Ogata and Kinya Kitaoji in films like Shinji Somai's "The Catch" and Mistuo Yanagimachi's "Himatsuri"; but Katsu still ends up being a classic Yakusho character. Like the leads in "Shall We Dance?" and "University of Laughs", Katsu is a man whose mind and heart are opened up by the most unlikely of creative outlets. With this Japanese film archetype alone Okita would have hit on his hands, but he places Katsu alongside Shun Oguri's shuffling and painfully introverted filmmaker. Koichi is a character that comes straight from the films like Yasutomo Chikuma's "Now, I..." or " Kohei Igarashi's Voice of the Rain that Comes at Night". It could have been a disaster, but it wasn't.
Watching "The Woodsman and the Rain" made me think of other great cinematic mash-ups that could have failed miserable, but didn't. Peter Bogdanovich's 1968 thriller "Targets" which pit an aging horror film actor (Boris Karloff) against a new kind of horror -- a Vietnam vet turned mass murderer (Tim O'Kelly), or John Wayne and James Stewart contrasted with the young Ron Howard in Don Siegel's western "The Shootist". "The Woodsman and the Rain" could have been just another feel-good formula film in which Yakusho's character teaches the young Koichi some valuable life lessons and everyone goes home happy. Everyone will go home happy from "The Woodsman and the Rain", but it will be because this is a film that gives us the best from old and new Japanese film and allows its unlikely leading duo to teach each other.