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Tuesday, May 16, 2000


The idol movie comes of age

Idol movies are dead -- long live idol movies.

This only-in-Japan genre -- films starring the teenage cutie(s) of the moment -- reached its peak in the '70s and '80s, when idols such as Momoe Yamaguchi and Hiroko Yakushimaru propelled film after film up the box-office chart, more on the basis of their popularity with their millions of fans than any discernible acting talent. Then in the late '80s and early '90s, as sales of idol CDs and TV shows slumped, the film careers of the girls (and the few boys) with the sugar-sweet smiles also went sour and idol movies faded from the screen. Though idol groups such as SMAP and Speed continued to make films, vehicles for individual idols seldom got the green light.

Thus "Hatsukoi (First Love)," a Tetsuo Shinohara film starring super-idol Rena Tanaka, marks something of a revival, as well as being a measure of Tanaka's industry clout. But though Tanaka appears in nearly every scene, "Hatsukoi" tries to be a real movie, not just a Tanaka showcase, and succeeds more often than not. It takes two themes -- thwarted young love and the early death of a parent -- that Japanese films usually drench in hot tears and approaches them with a degree of dry-eyed objectivity and even humor.

Shinohara, who was responsible for the fey supernatural romance of "Tsuki to Kyabetsu (Moon and Cabbages)" and the wryly mundane romance of "Sentakuki wa Ore ni Makasero (Leave the Washing Machine to Me)," does go for the standard catch-in-the-throat on occasion, but takes his often-used material in unexpected directions. Given the hankie-wringer the film could have easily become, we should be grateful.

Shinohara also has Tanaka -- a slim, leggy beauty with dramatically arched eyebrows who looks, from certain angles, as though she has been digitally generated by a game designer in search of the perfect woman, in the under-20 division. But though her face is eminently photogenic, Tanaka has genuine acting talent as well, as she proved in Itsumichi Isomura's excellent, underrated "Ganbatte Ikimasshoi," in which she portrayed the winningly stubborn leader of a girl's rowing crew.

In "Hatsukoi" she plays Satoka, a 17-year-old who becomes the only woman in the house when her mother (Mieko Harada) falls ill with a cold that, inexplicably, sends her to the hospital. While cooking dinner and cleaning the house for her nice-but-inept salaryman father (Mitsuru Hirata), Satoka begins to understand the large role her mother has played in their lives -- and the huge hole that has opened now that she is gone.

When her mother returns home, life briefly return to normal. One day Satoka discovers, in the secret drawer of mom's old music box, an unmailed letter to the boy who was her first love. Then her mother re-enters the hospital -- this time, Satoka begins to fear, for good. Partly to assuage her anxiety and partly to satisfy her curiosity and romantic longings, she decides to look for this boyfriend, one Shinichiro Fujiki (Hiroyuki Sanada).

Tracing the address on the letter to the Nagano countryside, she learns that her mother's home village has long since been submerged by a dam and that her quarry has moved to Tokyo. An intrepid (and reckless) type, she tracks Fujiki to his ramshackle apartment building, whose steps are cluttered with the kind of junk that signals serious social withdrawal. Knocking on the door, she notices a rattily clothed figure scuttling out a second-floor window and down a rope ladder -- Fujiki's early response system to overly persistent creditors.

Satoka finally runs this one-time heartthrob to ground and discovers that he is a smelly, shaggy, surly professional pachinko player who has zero interest in a reunion with the former love of his life. Satoka persists, however, and steadily wears down Fujiki's resistance. Soon she has him running on the treadmill at a local health club and getting a facial from a professional masseur in preparation for the big moment.

Meanwhile, Fujiki is rediscovering feelings and a self that he thought he had lost decades ago, while gaining a new appreciation of his young taskmistress. This reverse-Pygmalion subplot is amusing enough, but the main story, of the mother's fatal illness and Satoka's coming to terms with it, remains the film's heart.

Mieko Harada, who won a slew of acting prizes for her portrayal of an abusive mother in the 1998 "Ai o Kou Hito (Begging for Love)" is considerably more subdued in "Hatsukoi," but none the less steely. While provoking an occasional tear, her performance never descends to the bathos usually de rigueur for dying heroines in Japanese medical melodramas.

Also, she and Tanaka come across as a credible mother and daughter pair, though Harada's character is more of a traditional womanly type (modest, demure, self-sacrificing and uncomplaining) than Tanaka's, who is rash, outspoken and even obnoxious in her constant demands on the hapless Fujiki.

Does this mean that "Hatsukoi" represents a fresh departure for the idol movie, with a new image of Japanese womanhood?

Not quite. Shinohara and scriptwriter Masahiko Nagasawa bend genre conventions, but don't break them. Though Satoka may be a welcome departure from the norm and Fujiki yet another in Shinohara's lengthening line of drifters along society's fringes, the film's ending, with its sentimental journey and teary reunion under the falling cherry blossoms, is straight from the old school of Japanese commercial filmmaking, with its relentless thrumming on audience heartstrings.

Resist though I would, I confess I felt a lump rising in my throat as well.

Idols may not be forever, but weepy family dramas, I'm sure, will be with us for some time to come. Tanaka, I hope, will go on to bigger and better things. I can already see her in the local reworking of "Erin Brockovitch," without the undergarment engineering support, but still dominating every male she meets with sass, brass and those incredible eyebrows.

"Hatsukoi" is playing at Shinjuku Toei Palace 2 until May 19, Yokohama Nishiguchi Meigaza May 27-June 9 and other theaters.

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