“Rainbow Kids” is a more whimiscal title than the more descriptive original Japanese one, “Daiyukai,” which means “big kidnapping.” Written and directed by Okamoto Kihachi (1923-2005, director of some of the great rebel samurai films, such as Kill! [which has lots of black humor], Sword of Doom and Samurai Assassin) in 1991, the movie is a very genial comedy that was a big hit in Japan. There are some matters, such as calculation of inheritance tax in Japan, that are opaque to alien viewers (especially trying to follow the “logic” and the figures in translation that I think can’t be right), but other than that the movie is quite charming without being cloying.
It is a comedy about kidnapping, but the “kid” who is seized is not a child, but an immensely rich 82-year-old widow (Kitabayashi Tanie-No). She does not just charm her three kidnappers (even supplying them the name “rainbow kids” that the media are only two happy to publicize), but takes over management of her ransom negotiations.
The movie starts with two young men walking out of prison, having served short sentences for petty theft. They are picked up by a third, who has just bought an old car that he is far from proficient at driving. After waiting a couple of rain-filled weeks staking out the Yanagawa mansion and unsuccessfully tailing the matriarch on several ventures out from the stronghold, the three young men nab her, when she starts going out for hikes with a maid who is concerned about having gained half a kilogram of weight.
Mrs. Yanagawa, who seems to be enjoying her adventure from its start, is insulted by the small ransom the kidnappers are planning. She declares that she is worth much more—200 times more—and takes over planning how her biological children can raise the astronomical ransom and how the kidnappers whom she in effect has adopted can get the money and not be captured. Unlike them, she knows how her offspring think and how the head policeman of the Osaka prefecture (Ken Ogata [formerly “Mishima”]) think, and she knows the mountainous terrain (a substantial amount of which she owns) very well. And she can count on loyal obedience.
The movie starts cute, stays cute, and ends cute, depending to a large extent on the charam and mischievousness of Kitabayashi Yae, who is a Buddhist paragon of compassion and manages to do well by everyone. There are some sight gags and amusing reactions to the kidnappers’ demands, including the delivery of one note.
The movie satirizes greed, conniving heirs, astronomically expensive land prices, extorionate inheritance taxes, media frenzies (the most frequent and prolong target), narrow-minded charity, and massive police operations. The leader of the gang before she takes over is an orphan whose code name is “Lightning” (Kazama Toru). The more simple-minded of his genial underlings “Wind” (Uchida Katsuyoshi) is the unlikely romantic lead (especially surprising in that Kazama Tóru is the one with movie-hearthrob good looks; he went on to play the lead in “Bloom in the Moonlight” but has not become a real movie star). The third is little developed, though clearly he is a devoted son to his ailing mother, “Rain” (Nishikawa Hiroshi). Also, Kirin Kiki is quite amusing as a former servant of the “grand old lady.”
Okamoto won the Japanese Academy Awards for both direction and screenplay for “Dayukai”; Kitabayashi received the award for best actress, Kawashima Akimasa and Suzuki Akira for best editing; Ogata was nominated for best actor, Kirin Kiki for best supporting actress, Kishimoto Masahiro for best cinematography, Sató Masaru for best musical score (plus nominations for best sound, lighting, and picture).
The only DVD extras are three Japanese theatrical trailers. They are amusing, but I would have liked to hear from Okamoto, who is now dead (and who directed only two more movies after this one), and Kitabayashi, who is not and played a key role in a 2002 movie (Letter from the Mountain) for which she won another Japanese Academy Award. She was already playing old women in Ichikawa’s searing “Harp of Burma” in 1956. She also played the mother in Ichikawa’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion and appeared in Okamoto’s brilliant 1968 kamikaze satire “Nikudan” (Human Bullet).
©2016, Stephen O. Murray