Rainbow Kids, directed by Kihachi Okamoto, is one of those movies that sounds like it can’t miss, but for some reason it does. It’s a Japanese version of a plot we’ve seen a few times: a gang of kidnappers abduct someone who’s only too happy to go missing, and is soon running the whole shooting match. This time around the kidnappers are a trio of ne’er-do-well twentysomethings who have already done time for petty crimes, and who graduate up to kidnapping a wealthy matron, Old Lady Yanagawa (Tanie Kitabayashi), who has billions of yen in property to her name. She’s a sweet old thing who likes hot tea and hiking through the woods, and the presence of three masked desperadoes in her life gives her something to do.
As it turns out, Yanagawa decides that the best thing to do is to use the whole kidnapping ruse as a way to put one over the chief of police (Ken Ogata) and get her immediate family to pull themselves together and act like a family for a change. She stage-directs a media conference by remote control, throws the cops off her trail again and again, and in the end reveals a set of motives for the whole thing that isn’t just grandmotherly affection for her misguided abductors—although that’s certainly a big part of it.
Again, it sounds like a surefire premise, doesn’t it? What’s curious is that despite a game cast—Ken Ogata was in Mishima, Kitano-gumi Ittoku Kishibe appears as one of Yanagawa’s children—and one of the better popular directors from Japan, the whole of the film is simply so much less than the sum of its parts. Part of the problem is the pacing, which seems more inspired by a general-issue police procedural (which I think they’re parodying, but not very effectively). The movie spends inordinate amounts of time dealing with the investigation, the mechanics of throwing the cops off the trail—and all in such loving, tireless detail—that I started to wonder if they had meant to make a more serious movie at one point and had switched tracks halfway through.
In fact, the plot digressions run on at such length, the whole thing ends up feeling like a cinematic shaggy-dog story. There’s a lot of topical material that’s amusing, I guess—Okamoto gets a lot of mileage out of the pomposity of authority in modern Japan—but after a while it simply becomes redundant, and by the time we finally do get to the end (which is played out as exhaustively as everything else), I wished the movie had quit half an hour earlier and a whole lot more succinctly. Come to think of it, it’s the sort of story that a Hong Kong director would have ripped through in far less time and maybe to far greater effect as well.
Okamoto is a director who’s proven himself to be good enough that I’ll seek out his films on principle. His best movies—Kill!, Sword of Doom, Red Lion—all bristled with great ambition and fire, and he threw himself into the samurai period picture genre with the most gusto. His last film before his death in 2005, Vengeance for Sale, returned to that territory and even brought back a few staple faces—Hiroyuki Sanada, death-faced Tatsuya Nakadai (also of Kill! and Doom), Ittoku Kishibe himself, and many more. But Rainbow Kids is smoke instead of fire, and once it’s all over, it blows away every bit as quickly.
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