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Tuesday, March 9, 1999

Boom and bust of over-40 romance

Movies about middle-agers grabbing a last chance at love have become all the rage since the smash success of "Shitsurakuen" in 1997. Two that were released last year -- Yoji Yamada's "Gakko III" and Shinichiro Sawai's "Shigure no Ki," the latter a vehicle for ageless star Sayuri Yoshinaga, have both drawn large audiences of over-40 moviegoers, ensuring that the boomlet will continue.

The latest film to cash in on that boomlet is "Coquille," which chronicles the affair of two junior high school classmates who have been reunited after a gap of three decades in the provincial town where they grew up. Though I have long admired the work of the director, Shun Nakahara, particularly his early '90s ensemble pieces "Sakura no Sono" and "Juninin no Yasashii Nihonjin," I have a built-in resistance to movies targeted at Boomers that are as sedate in tone and conservative in approach as their supposed audience. "Coquille," I'm afraid, fits squarely in that category. Am I another eternal adolescent denying the passage of time? I suppose so.

Nakahara, whose most recent film was the motor-mouthed caper comedy "Lie, Lie, Lie," fulfills his assignment in "Coquille" with his usual careful attention to detail and nuance, from the whitewashed exterior of his heroine's snack bar, with its Southern Mediterranean look, to the catty gossip flowing like a cold current beneath the strained bonhomie of a class reunion. But the script by Kota Yamada, which is based on a novel by Osamu Yamamoto, develops its familiar theme in a predictably lachrymose direction, dragging in that familiar deux ex machina -- the traffic accident -- to provide the climax.

This may be comforting to over-40s who are still pining for another Tora-san series to supply pathos in the accustomed gentle doses, but this 40-something found the film's take on the cruel whims of fate to be altogether too pat. I guess I'm still immature enough to want to be surprised at the movies, not mildly saddened at the failure of yet another pair of middle-aged lovers to find more than fleeting happiness. Just once, I'd like to see a graying couple meet the fade out with a clink of cocktail glasses on a beach in Waikiki.

The heroine is Naoko (Jun Fubuki), who has recently divorced her husband, moved back to her hometown from Tokyo and opened a snack bar called Coquille. Appearing at her junior high school class reunion for the first time in decades, she is all but a stranger to most of her former classmates, but she soon gets reacquainted with one: the shy, soft-spoken, straight-arrow Urayama (Kaoru Kobayashi), whom she first fell for as a schoolgirl and never forgot.

Urayama, however, has only the faintest recollection of Naoko. Supporting a wife and two children with is middle-management job at a local plant, he has long been too busy to spend much time dwelling on a girl he once knew in junior high school. And yet there is something in the longing of her glance, the urgency of her attempts to reconnect, that awakens old memories, old feelings.

Why did they part in the first place? While they are dancing at the reunion, she reminds him that she approached him one day after his kendo practice at school and whispered something in his right ear -- something important to her and, if he had only known it, to him. He tells her that, being deaf in that ear from a childhood illness, he heard nothing -- and passed on. As a result, their budding romance never bloomed.

One night, after making the rounds of the bars with a superior (Sansho Shinsui), he finds himself at Coquille. Even though the boss promptly creates a drunken scene, something clicks between Naoko and Urayama, and he becomes a Coquille regular. He also learns that she took the name of the bar from a shell and a Jean Cocteau poem that he gave her in a graduation gift exchange.

But the renewed acquaintance of these former classmates is tinged from the beginning by their awareness of its brevity. Urayama has been transferred to the company's sales section in Tokyo. But he elects to leave his family behind, giving him an excuse to return to the town -- and Naoko. Then Urayama's boss attempts suicide and, near death in a hospital bed, rambles on about a girl he had known in his radical student days.

Seeing the hurt in the eyes of the boss's wife, Urayama decides to take his entire family to Tokyo, removing him from temptation forever. Before he leaves, however, Naoko asks him for one last favor, a day trip to a mountain they had once climbed as students. Urayama agrees and comes to feel that this woman with the glowing smile and sad, hungry eyes means far more to him than just another face in a year book. Will he do his familial duty, or follow the impulses of his heart?

Always good with actors, Nakahara draws excellent performances from Fubuki as Naoko and Kobayashi as Urayama. Naoko could have easily become merely pathetic -- a fortysomething woman who never had a life -- but Fubuki plays her with a self-awareness and self-respect that elevates and justifies her passion.

She doesn't want to cling to an old dream, but live it fully, for however short a time, so she can finally let it go. Urayama, on the other hand, is such an average, if upright, sort that he barely emerges from the woodwork at first, but Kobayashi portrays, with subtle but telling strokes, his awakening to all he has missed and all that is at stake.

Playing Tanikawa, another former classmate who briefly becomes Naoko's lover, Toru Masuoka comes across as a brash, crass egotist who represents all that Urayama is not. I know that "Coquille" wants me to despise Tanikawa and sympathize with Naoko and Urayama -- its Good Japanese -- but he brought a welcome splash of raucous color to the movie's autumnal gray -- and I'm sure he would mix a wicked martini.

"Coquille" will be released March 27.

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