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Tuesday, July 11, 2000


In my old neighborhood

Some directors become hometown heroes, whose favorite cities appear again and again in their films and become indelibly associated with their names -- think Federico Fellini and Rome, Woody Allen and New York. Jun Ichikawa, however, went one step further than most, in not only setting a film entirely in a beloved neighborhood -- Tokyo's Shimokitazawa -- but premiering it in a theater there.

Why Shimokitazawa, a bohemian enclave and theater district that has long been Tokyo's nearest equivalent to Off Broadway? In a program interview, Ichikawa cites the place's "strange appeal." "People from different generations live quietly and peacefully together," he explains. In other words, a fortunate exception to the increasingly fractious and isolated urban rule.

"Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa" may be somewhat out of the ordinary in its localization (when so many Japanese filmmakers are trying to go global), but it marks a return, after the stylistic experimentations of "Tadon and Chikuwa" and the Kansai earthiness of "Osaka Monogatari," to essential Ichikawa. Shot after perfectly composed shot poetically evokes rather than conventionally explain, and the naturalistic dialogue sounds more improvised than written, but subtly expresses character and advances the story.

Ichikawa has often been compared to Yasujiro Ozu (and has invited such comparisons with homages to Ozu's work) but his films also resemble those of Eric Rohmer in their sensitive, affectionate attention to the realities of relationships in today's advanced societies. The principals may seem freer than their tradition-bound parents, but their romantic transactions are also more fragile and fragmentary.

Though in love with the slower-paced, more human-centered Tokyo of his youth, the 51-year-old Ichikawa is no nostalgist spinning cliches from a rosily misremembered past. Instead, he seeks the essence of that Tokyo in contemporary faces, gestures and inflections, in cityscapes that everyone knows but few see. He reveals the pathos and beauty that exists, not on an exalted plane, but in everyday lives. At their best, his films are gifts of a fresh, but intimately familiar spiritual vision.

As with many Ichikawa films, "Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa" begins as a group portrait but coalesces around turning points in the lives of its principals. One is Yuki (Tomoko Kitagawa), a 20-year-old waitress in a boho cafe near the station. Another is the cafe manager, Kyushiro (Yoshio Harada), who leads a troupe of actors that has been performing regularly at a local theater for more than a decade. The cafe mama, Yoko (Lily), is also a longtime Shimokitazawa resident, whose relationship with Kyushiro has remained firmly on the level of friendship.

Though something of a throwback -- she exudes a purity more reminiscent of an Ozu heroine than a Shibuya girl -- Yuki faces a very New Millennial dilemma. She is, she feels, running down an endless track, while her relationship with her boyfriend, Tatsuya (Masayoshi Ozawa), is on the cusp of a change -- but of what kind she cannot clearly say.

Meanwhile, Tatsuya drifts in and out of a job with a publishing company, takes photos, plays the bongos and hangs out with his slacker friends. He also becomes involved in a desultory affair with a woman who works in a Shimokitazawa secondhand shop -- and offers him what Yuki cannot.

In thrashing out her various issues, Yuki draws comfort from her aunt (Ingrid Fujiko Hemming), a gravel-voiced dowager who plays a soulful classical piano and has survived life's battles with her salty sense of humor intact. Yuki is also inspired by Kyushiro's performance in a chanbara drama that he's staged dozens of times, but still injects with sparks of passion. He may think he's just going through the motions, but he still yearns for something more. (He talks, without conviction, of quitting show business and retiring to Okinawa.)

Yuki, too yearns for something more. By the end of the film, she decides to find it and move on.

In filming these and other transitions in his characters' lives, Ichikawa uses supporting metaphors, including the usual one of changing seasons (the film begins in the heat of the summer and ends in the chill of winter) and the unusual one of a small Tengu-like object that Yuki gives to Tatsuya. In the course of the film, it changes hands several more times, not only linking the characters in a karmic chain, but underlining the transience of their relationships.

There is sadness in the Tengu's journey from love token to good luck charm, but there is also hope. Ichikawa believes in the essential goodness of its owners, who may not be perfect, but appreciate its value. In Ichikawa's Shimokitazawa, we feel, old things and old ways still matter, still live. In a modern Japan dedicated to either eradicating or Disneyfying the best of its past, it's nice to know that such pockets of resistance still exist.

As Yuki, Kitagawa gives a performance at once interior and transparent. Not because she expresses every thought literally, but because she truly inhabits her character, in all her reserve and directness. It's interesting that Kitagawa spent most of her school years in Saipan, but still impresses as "purely" Japanese -- perhaps another case of an expat preserving aspects of the home country culture long after the natives have abandoned them.

Meanwhile, Ozawa (the son of conductor Seiji Ozawa) heats up the screen as the restless Tatsuya. With brooding good looks and a confident screen presence reminiscent of the young Yujiro Ishihara, Ozawa hits the power chords the film needs to make it more than yet another minor-key essay on postadolescent angst.

In his 13th film, Ichikawa again shows why he is among the most talented and consistent filmmakers of his generation. The man has never made a bad movie and, as his latest proves, he is only getting better with age. A lot like Shimokitazawa itself.

"Zawa Zawa Shimokitazawa" is playing at Cinema Shimokitazawa, (03) 5452-1400.

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