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Star-Bulletin Features

Thursday, November 9, 2000

Mid-level employees aim to restore
honor to the Asahi Central Bank.

Salarymen save
the day in ‘Jubaku’

Bullet Jubaku
Bullet Playing at: 12:30 p.m. tomorrow at UH Campus Center Ballroom; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14 at Waimea Theatre on Kauai; 7:30 p.m. Nov. 19 at Maui Arts and Cultural Center.

By Burl Burlingame

JAPANESE films and manga have a character largely unknown in the West, that of the "salaryman" or mid-level office worker as hero. There's a good reason for this. We are culturally incapable of perceiving such a character as anything other than a giant snooze. Unless, of course, it's a comedy making fun of the system ("Office Space") or a "true" tale about how the system wants to crush you ("The Insider").

Not in Japan. There, the hero restores the system in a crisis, makes it functional again. It's like watching serfs battle to regain their fiefdom after being infected with the heresy of democracy. We just don't get it.

Which is why watching "Jubaku" is interesting. Director Masato Harada has fashioned a sprawling, many-peopled epic that seems, as they say, torn from today's headlines. It concerns a banking scandal and the efforts of a small group -- a mid-level planning committee, no less -- to restore the bank's reputation and business savvy.

It seems that the Asahi Central Bank has been making unsecured loans to Japanese racketeers, and a scandal erupts. I'm not sure if it's because the racketeers haven't been making their interest payments on time, but the issue seems so explosive that the TV news reporters who stumble across the story caution themselves to tone down the facts so that the public won't get upset.

I told you this isn't an American movie!

The title "Jubaku" means "spellbound," which is apparently the Japanese term for hangin' with gangstas.

Harada makes much of the differences in the insular world of the banking executives, which is lushly shot in a kind of "Fall of the Roman Empire" opulence (the company logo is even Romulus and Remus suckling on the mother wolf) and the claustrophobic interiors of the average working stiff or journalist.

It's not easy telling the suits apart, particularly at the higher levels. Of the mid-level worker bees, Koji Yakusho makes a rumpled mark as the guy whose family ties might prove problematic.

When the government investigators sweep into the bank, it's like a SWAT raid. Everyone's terrified. One investigator, a rock-hard woman with impenetrable glasses, suggests coldly that any complainers at a stockholders meeting simply be taken outside and beaten up, reminding us, once more, that we're not in Kansas anymore.

Many scenes like this have a kind of heightened documentary feel, very Costa-Gavras, so much so that this viewer went scurrying to the Internet to find out more about the Asahi Central Bank scandal.

It's all a fiction.

Harada is too much a corporate loyalist to actually film a real salaryman scandal, so an artificial one is served up instead. But the concept makes you wonder how a movie like "The Insider" or "Wall Street" plays overseas.

Does the average foreign viewer think they accurately mirror the reality of life in America? I think I'd rather have the rest of the world still believing we're all cowboys and tap dancers.

This is the last of five Hawai'i International Film Festival Golden Maile nominated feature films that we have been reviewing. Winners will be announced tomorrow.

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