Sharaku ★★½

1995 Cannes Film Festival (In Competition)

Years from now, my main memory of Sharaku will be the bizarre, character-obscuring color gradient bars over the opening credits that brought to mind both Windows ('95, naturally) and the censored sex scenes in Storytelling.

Until then, Sharaku is also a leisurely tour of the 18th-century kabuki art world, less concerned with being a speculative biopic than depicting the context in which the portrait painter emerged. The early scene integrating Tonbo's injury with a kabuki performance shows promise, as does the later street performance where his injury becomes the stuff of fiction. But it soon becomes lackadaisical and rife with scenes that don't seem terribly necessary, except perhaps to an art historian intimately familiar with the scene.

In the second half, Shinoda seems to realize his protagonist has gotten lost in the shuffle and resorts to the old tactic of pleading for its subject's enduring importance. After the great effort to be an ensemble piece, this move feels strangely desperate. It doesn’t give the film a center; it just reinforces its lack of unity.