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Tuesday, July 4, 2000

'SUZURAN'

The return of a well-worn formula


Seeing the ads for "Suzuran (Return of Happiness)," the film based on the highly rated NHK morning drama of the same title, I was reminded of "Poppoya (Railroad Man)," the weepy fantasy about the reunion of an aging Hokkaido stationmaster with his long-dead daughter that made tons of yen for Toei last year. Once again the hero, played by veteran character actor Isao Hashizume instead of screen icon Ken Takakura, patrols the platform manfully through all seasons, looking like a recruiting poster for JR. And once again the object of his affection is a sweet, pure-spirited young thing, played by newcomer Rumi Hiiragi instead of super-idol Ryoko Hirosue.

But though the ad campaign for "Suzuran" may be a "Poppoya" knockoff, right down to the snowflakes falling on the hero's immaculate uniform, the film itself is more reminiscent of "Oshin," an NHK morning drama that smashed ratings records and became a national phenomenon during its 300-episode run in 1983 and 1984.

Both film and TV series feature cute prepubescent heroines who bear up stoically under hardships in prewar rural Japan, with the aid of only surrogate parents. Both series make an unabashed appeal to traditional types who may not long for the hardships of the old days (or may, in some cases), but still fondly recall its core values of self-sacrifice and strength through pain, values that to many of the younger generation are about as cool as the collected speeches of Prime Minister Mori.

Director Rintaro Mayuzumi, who also helmed the TV show, films "Suzuran" in strict adherence to genre convention, giving us little we haven't seen a thousand times before. But Mayuzumi, who is best known for "Rampo," a 1995 period psychodrama that producer Kazuyoshi Okuyama famously trashed, is also a conscientious craftsman sensitive, in the best Japanese cinematic tradition, to the interplay of the natural world and its human inhabitants.

He and cameraman Masao Nakahori capture the wildly swinging moods of wintertime Hokkaido, from the warmingly homey (the candle-lit festival floats that blaze red amid frolicking dancers), to the chillingly savage (roaring seas that smash the boats and snuff out the lives of local fishermen), in images that rise above the decorative to grandeur. By the end I wanted more to be in his Hokkaido than in his movie.

Not that he ladles on the sentiment with a trowel, as many another director might with this material. He reins in the more bathetic impulses of his cast, though the principals spend much of their screen time flexing jaws and blinking back tears. He even coaxes a performance from Hiiragi, as the brave little Moe, that is blessedly free of the usual child-star grimaces.

Hiiragi looks and behaves much as a kid of the early Showa might: at first glance, chubby-faced, stolid and shy, but strong-willed and emotional at her core. She might even fit into an Ozu movie, though when the tears rise to the surface, she lets them burst and flow in rivulets, without the stock Ozu-kid gesture of hiding her eyes with her forearm. A New Age anachronism? Who knows, but it's an indication that Hiiragi can act, not just pose.

The story is that genre war horse -- the hard-pressed young mother who abandons her child, this time in a train station in the Hokkaido countryside. Named Moe and raised by the kindly stationmaster, Jiro (Hashizume), the girl grows up in the warm embrace and tender regard of the local community, including the hard-working mistress of the neighboring inn (Hisako Manda) and her lazy, philandering but good-hearted husband (Saburo Ishikura). Her best friend, Takejiro (Itto Yamada), is a sumo wrestler in embryo who may be impulsive and foolish, but always has Moe's interests at heart. But though hardly ignored, Moe still longs for a mother she can no longer remember.

One day this longing -- and everything else -- nearly ends when Moe, running on a train track with Takejiro, falls into a snow-covered hole, her upper body over the rail. Just as a train is about to crush her, as Takejiro struggles frantically to free her, a stranger pulls her out of the hole, pushes Takejiro out of the train's path and dives, at the last moment, into the nearest ditch. Everyone survives, but the stranger -- a fiery-eyed young man named Hideji (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) -- walks away with a limp.

Jiro the stationmaster now owes Hideji an eternal debt of gratitude, even though he becomes surly and silent when the conversation turns to his background and his past. While he is recovering from his injury at Jiro's place, the villagers' initial admiration for his heroism turns to suspicion, especially when the mayor receives a wanted poster for a man who murdered his father -- a man who bears an uncanny likeness to Hideji. Instead of turning him in, however, Jiro decides to hide him with a friend -- the oyakata (boss) of a crew of local herring fishermen.

Soon after, Jiro must deal with another dilemma -- a pink muffler he has received from Moe's mother (Hitomi Kuroki). He met her once two years before, when she begged for a reunion and then failed to show at the appointed time. Now she wants to contact Moe again, but Jiro is reluctant to let her. She has already abandoned the girl twice, while Jiro has come to love her. A child he once regarded as the reincarnation of his dead wife is now dearer to him than his own life. How can he possibly give her up?

Where is Moe in the midst of all this adult upheaval? Too often she becomes a bit player in her own drama, as Mayuzumi and scriptwriter Yuki Shimizu strive to unspool all the main plot threads of the TV series. Not that this diffuse approach violates genre rules -- families in Japanese family dramas are often extended indeed -- but it does tend to make "Suzuran" more of a feature-length "best scenes" collection than a movie.

Fans won't mind. This non-fan, though, wanted more of Moe -- and those scenes of brightly lit festival floats dancing and glimmering in the Hokkaido night air. Winter never looked better -- especially in July.

"Suzuran (Return of Happiness)" is playing at Marunouchi Piccadilly in Yurakucho and other theaters.


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