June 29, 2006

Silver screen charisma

Charisma is probably genetic (though a combination of traits rather than a single expression, though I wouldn't be surprised if it was tracked down to a single gene). It bestows obvious evolutionary advantages, like becoming a movie star. This was brought home to me by a lackluster Toshirou Mifune vehicle, Samurai Assassin.

It's a melodramatically ambitious film, more Greek tragedy than traditional samurai chanbara eiga. In the key scene at the start of the movie, the camera slowly pans across a room. And then, bam! there's Mifune, slouching against a wall with the rest of the rough-looking wannabee rebel rounin. But Mifune's presence lights up the scene, like he's got a spotlight turned on him.

Following Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, Mifune was at the height of his career, so you anticipate his appearance, though you're still blown away. Ditto the first time Grace Kelly walks into frame in Rear Window, and practically walks off the screen into your lap. Holy freaking cow!

But more interesting is spotting that magic before it's acknowledged as a universal fact. For example, Crazed Fruit (1956), a low-budget film in the Rebel Without a Cause genre, featuring a cast of unknowns. But the moment Yuujirou Ishihara runs into the frame, outshining everybody around him, you say to yourself, he's going places, and he did.

It doesn't always turn out that way. In the 1971 exploitation flick (though it's not all that exploitative) Delinquent Girl Boss ("Zubeko Bancho: Zange no Neuchi mo nai") from the Pinky Violence Collection, it's not only Reiko Oshida's natural charisma that leaps off the screen, but her husky Lauren Bacall voice that comes thrumming through the speakers.

In the penultimate scene, the girls dress up in blood-red trenchcoats and Oshida delivers a pitch-perfect oath of retribution before going off to kick yakuza butt--the very antithesis of kawaii, but stop-your-heart seductive. Cut out the several "Austin Powers" moments, ignore the Shinjuku skyline and Oshida's hot pants, and you'd hardly notice the intervening 35 years.

Unfortunately, Oshida must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time, or working for the wrong studio in the wrong film, or simply wasn't considered chirpily kawaii enough, because she never broke out as a major star. What a loss! But what a voice!

And while we're in the preternaturally low voices category, Joji Nakata, who plays the Count of Monte Cristo in Gankutsuou, has one of those delicious, floor-rumbling bass voices, a kind of cross between James Earl Jones and Leonard Cohen.

At the other end of the spectrum is Sakiko Tamagawa, who plays the very lethal but childlike Tachikoma robots on Ghost in the Shell: SAC. Tamagawa's talents turn them into the smartest, cutest, and yet most believable self-aware armored personnel carriers ever devised. R2D2 comes across with the personality of a Campbell's soup can in comparison.

Splitting the difference is Ayumi Ito, who voices Tifa in Final Fantasy VII. Having no interest in video games myself, I hadn't the slightest idea what the movie was about from the first scene until the closing credits started rolling. Unlike the original Final Fantasy movie, Final Fantasy VII was obvious made by game players for game players. Well, all the power to them.

I did manage to sit through the whole thing, though. As it's pretty much a high-def video game, it was like watching the Road Warrior version of Cirque du Soleil. And like I said, there's Ayumi Ito. Honestly, I could listen to her read the phonebook.

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