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Tuesday, June 29, 1999

Lost past found again in summer

For kids, summer vacation stretches out like an ocean of time. How to cross it?

Yuta (Takuro Atsugi), a dreamy fifth-grade boy living in a Tokyo bedroom town, is no doubt about to embark on a typical city-kid's summer (i.e., video games, manga and homework) when his parents ship him off to Onomichi, the Inland Sea port where his grandparents live. Yuta doesn't much care for Grandpa (Keiju Kobayashi) -- a for-mer school principal who regards Yuta and his family with a gruff disdain. There is a reason, his older sister (Naha Sano) informs him: Dad fell in love with Mom, got her pregnant with Sis and married her -- all without Grandpa's approval.

Grandpa, Mom and Dad tell Yuta, has been acting strangely recently -- gobbling the offerings at a Buddhist altar and leading the mourners at a funeral in rajio taiso (radio exercises). The old boy, they are afraid, is going senile, but they are too busy to take care of him, while Sis has to study for her high school entrance exam. Yuta, on the other hand, has all that free time -- he can help Grandma keep Grandpa out of trouble. Yuta, well-brought-up boy that he is, can't say no.

When he arrives at his grandparent's Japanese-style house on a hill overlooking the harbor, he finds not the scowling ogre of his memory, but a gruff, if kindly, old man already far advanced into second childhood -- and eager to take Yuta with him. Linking hands and chanting the words of an old children's song, they embark on a fantastic journey to the Onomichi of Grandpa's past.

There they discover the unspoiled countryside of seven decades ago, with its green fields and fish swimming in clear streams. They enjoy a summertime idyll with terrors and joys reminiscent of a Japanese fairy tale. They also encounter the hero of this idyll, Grandpa as a boy, falling in love for the first time -- and committing a sacrilege in a local temple that haunts him still. While Grandpa is reliving this drama, though, slipping back and forth between present and past selves, Yuta is observing it -- and noticing that Grandpa's version of the past is not necessarily the true one.

The director, Nobuhiko Ohbayashi, is an Onomichi native who has set two trilogies in his hometown -- "Ano, Natsu no Hi" is the last film of the second one. A humanist of the old school, he has stoutly resisted cinematic fashions, including the minimalist black humor of Takeshi Kitano.

Both Kitano's "Kikujiro no Natsu" and Ohbayashi's "Ano, Natsu no Hi" depict the budding friendship between a young boy and an eccentric older man. But whereas Kitano's ojichan is a low-life, always on the look-out for the next scam, Ohbayashi's Grandpa is a crusty old man with a heart of gold from hundreds of Japanese melodramas. With his straw hat, yukata and old-fashioned ways (he spends his free time polishing Japanese-style swords, not watching baseball games on the tube), he is more of a grandfather for Ohbayashi's generation than Yuta's.

Ohbayashi is also an unashamed nostalgist, who looks back fondly at a Japan that, save for a dwindling minority, has all but vanished. Hearts, he seems to say, beat purer and truer before everyone started fighting 24 hours a day. Magic was once not just the latest computer-game gimmick, but a reality.

Still, though a cultural conservative, Ohbayashi is also a pioneer independent filmmaker who often ventures where few of his colleagues have dared venture before. Sometimes the results are brilliant and sometimes wrong-headed, but he continues, commendably, to go his own way.

In "Ano, Natsu no Hi" he has opted for a stylized quirkiness and perkiness reminiscent of feel-good TV dramas, but his enthusiasm and inventiveness lift the film above the TV level. Unlike "Kikujiro," whose boy hero plays a silent second banana to the film's childish adults, "Ano, Natsu no Hi" is a child-centered film that kids can enjoy, just as they enjoyed Ohbayashi's 1996 hit eco-fable "Mizu no Tabibito," which was as hyper as a kiddie cartoon show. The drier-minded adults in the audience may squirm, but the ones who can recall the texture of their childhood, in which imagination and reality freely intermingle, will be more inclined to go along for the ride.

Also, in Keiju Kobayashi, he has the ideal Grandpa, who can glower convincingly and dance ecstatically. Kobayashi's concept of the role is not the deepest (those expecting a definitive portrayal of early-stage senility had better look elsewhere), but he brings a needed presence and vitality.

One wonders, though, what Abbas Kiarostomi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and other Iranian masters of the children's film would have done with this material. Instead of Takuro Atsugi (an obvious professional) they would cast a gifted amateur as Yuta. Instead of Ohbayashi's frenetic playfulness, they would take a more naturalistic approach. Instead of Ohbayashi's attempts to goose the film with quick cuts and computer-generated effects, they would let the story unfold at childhood's slower pace. Wonder and terror would arise from seemingly trivial situations that loom large to their underage characters.

They still know what childhood is. Ohbayashi is remembering to remember.

"Ano, Natsu no Hi" will be released July 3.

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