This lavishly produced melodrama about finding love and salvation in the midst of despair fascinates and impresses on a number of levels and should show up in fest programming in the coming months. Whether the bold visions of writer-director Macoto Tezka will find theatrical bookings outside Japan depends on the imagination of distribs, and the pic's excessive length is a drawback.

This lavishly produced melodrama about finding love and salvation in the midst of despair fascinates and impresses on a number of levels and should show up in fest programming in the coming months. Whether the bold visions of writer-director Macoto Tezka will find theatrical bookings outside Japan depends on the imagination of distribs, and the pic’s excessive length is a drawback. But Tezka’s arresting film could become a cult item.

“The Innocent” takes place in a skewed 1990s, when World War II is still raging, more fiercely than ever, with frequent bombing raids over Japanese cities. For generations who have known nothing but conflict, the world is a frightening and terrible place; the only relief is the lightweight TV mush that is passed off as culture, which is broadcast from the monolithic Media Station, the largest building still standing in the city — a kind of Tower of Babel rising above the ruined metropolis.

Izawa (Tadanobu Asano) works as a humble production assistant at Media Station and lives in near-poverty in a house owned by an old tailor and his wife. Chickens and pigs are kept in the courtyard of the run-down establishment, and various marginal characters live in neighboring houses. Izawa daily contemplates suicide; a noose hangs from his ceiling.

The biggest star of Media Station is glamorous 20-year-old Ginga (Reika Hashimoto), who is cordially detested by everyone who works with her. Bitchy and demanding, Ginga treats everyone around her with contempt, but she’s so popular with the public that her every demand is met by station management (she even has a Salome-like scene in which she offers to dance for the studio head if she is granted any request). Ginga is attracted to Izawa, and is infuriated when he refuses to reciprocate.

One night, Izawa finds a strange young woman, Sayo (Miyako Koda), cowering in his room. She is the wife of a supposed madman who lives across the courtyard, and though she says nothing, it’s clear that she needs love and companionship. And so she stays, hidden away by day while Izawa is at work and sleeping with him at night.

Tezka’s vision of a world where ’90s technology is in place but where the crippling war has reduced ordinary people to abject poverty is a bold one, and film’s inventive production design, by Toshihiro Isomi, is a major component of the film’s success.

The almost nightly air raids have reduced vast sections of the city to burned-out rubble, with charred corpses littering the landscape, while within the plush corridors of Media Station, glamorous musical numbers are staged and executives wheel and deal in a smart canteen. The most important employees of the station, including the vain, spoiled Ginga, live in deluxe apartments within the building.

Pic attempts to explore the limits of despair and the possibility of salvation, and for much of its length impresses with its ideas and visuals. It gets a bit bogged down in the middle, and a lengthy speech by Ginga comes across as overly mannered and theatrical, but all is redeemed in the awesomely impressive apocalyptic climax, reported to include the biggest fire and series of explosions staged for any Japanese film to date. Some of the pic’s special effects are cheesy while others are mesmerizing, particularly dramatic shots of giant bombers droning over the city.

Asano effectively portrays the frustration and hopelessness of the beleaguered hero while, in their different ways, Koda and Hashimoto are lovely as the two women in his life. Production values are lavish, and the lush orchestral score by Ichiko Hashimoto adds to the epic feel of this ambitious, intriguing pic.

The Innocent

Japanese

Production

A Fuji release of a Tezuka Prods. production. Produced by Binbun Furusawa. Executive producer, Takamasa Matsutani. Directed, written by Macoto Tezka, based on the novella by Ango Sakaguchi.

Crew

Camera (color), Junichi Fujisawa; editor, Yoshiyuki Wada; music, Ichiko Hashimoto; production designer, Toshihiro Isomi; costume designer, Sachiko Ito; sound, Tomoharu Urata, Kenji Shibazaki. Reviewed at Venice Film Festival (Dreams and Visions), Sept. 9, 1999. Running time: 146 MIN.

With

Izawa - Tadanobu Asano
Sayo - Miyako Koda
Ginga - Reika Hashimoto
Kogarashi - Masao Kusakari
Tailor - Syunji Fujimura
Tailor's Wife - Kyoko Enami
Aki - Anji
Program Manager - Yasutaka Tsutsui
Yoshida - Syunsuke Matsuoka
Ochiai - Yoshio Harada
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