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Wednesday, July 18, 2001

Ms. Tokyo takes a trip to reality

Koko ni Iru Koto

Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Masahiko Nagasawa Running time: 115 minutes Language: JapaneseNow showing

The TV trendy drama was a bubble-era phenomenon, with its stories about the love troubles of beautiful young singles working at glamorous "katakana jobs" (such as "event planner" and "coordinator," written in the katakana syllabary) and living in central city apartments that the average straphanger would have to mortgage his soul to afford.

Hitomi Manaka stars in "Koko ni Iru Koto (Being Here)"

Though a fantasy, the trendy drama reflected the times, in which even OLs could dream of fat bonuses and Louis Vuitton bags without end. Today, after a decade of recession, that fantasy has come back to earth, with the results evident in Masahiko Nagasawa's debut feature "Koko ni Iru Koto (Being Here)."

As in the trendy dramas of yore, the heroine, Shino Aiba (Hitomi Manaka), is young, attractive, unattached and living alone in Tokyo, safe from the prying eyes of neighbors and relatives. She even has a job as a copywriter (or, in katakana, kopiraita) with a big ad agency. But instead of glamorizing her life, with shots of chic designer clothes, swank restaurants and dream dates against the backdrop of the Rainbow Bridge, Nagasawa has opted for the kind of antiromanticism that would make a trendy-drama producer roll his eyes in horror at the thought of ratings points lost.

Rather than the air of eternal perkiness once thought de rigueur for trendy drama heroines, Aiba has the look of the average young career woman shuffling down a subway platform at 9 in the morning and girding herself for a corporate battle she is not altogether sure she can win.

Also, instead of wearing the makeup one finds in Kose ads, which makes its celebrity models look like rosy, glowing androids, Aiba goes largely au naturel, not bothering to cover the largish mole on her chin that an older generation would have called a beauty mark.

It says a lot about her character, this mole -- and a lot about Nagasawa's approach to his film: a mixture of populist naturalism and sentiment, in the manner of veteran crowd-pleaser Yoji Yamada, and postmodern subversion of trendy-drama conventions. The result is an unusual take on the boy-meets-girl story, without declarations, clinches or the semi-obligatory solitary night walk in a downpour, as car headlights wink in the background. There are, to be strict about it, no lovers at all in this film -- just one woman coming to realizations about her past, her priorities and the Meaning of It All.

About to turn 25 as the film begins, Aiba still ranks low on the male-dominated agency hierarchy and is regularly dissed at meetings. She is also having an affair with a superior that said superior's wife has discovered. The wife gives her 500,000 yen in kiss-off money and the agency transfers her to the sales department in Osaka, which, for the Tokyo-bred, upward-bound Aiba, is a Siberian exile.

She arrives looking blank and withdrawn and feeling more than a little pissed-off at the agency, Osaka and the world at large. When a smiling new coworker named Maeno (Masato Sakai) suggests that she register for a week at the deluxe hotel the agency has found for her, she snaps that she intends to stay a month and use up every last yen of her half-million hotel allowance. After that? Sayonara, suckers.

Her new colleagues, however, are an earthy, straight-talking bunch, who have little use for her fake-modest, secretly snobby Tokyo ways and are determined to make her get with the program. Her new manager, Yamada (Yasuji Nakamura), growls at every opportunity, while a sharp-tongued female coworker (Mami Kurosawa) invites her to what is essentially an OL lynching party, with Aiba as the guest of honor.

Luck is also on her side, though. Going to the boat races, she tries to toss away her money on a no-hope bet and ends up with a ticket worth 10 million yen -- her escape hatch. Then, when her frank talk to a fat, shiny-domed toy manufacturer threatens to derail an important ad campaign, Maeno saves the situation by reminiscing about the long-past glory days of the Hankyu Braves -- and discovering that the toy tycoon is also a fervent fan. The wa (harmony) of the meeting restored, the toy tycoon even takes an interest in Aiba's campaign ideas, while Aiba starts to see Maeno in a new light.

Here, at last, is a new shot at success, but Aiba rejects it, fleeing the company in panic. Her rescuer, once again, is Maeno -- who follows her, calms her and takes her on a personal tour of his favorite city.

Does love bloom? Not quite: Maeno is a Peter Pan type who loves not only the Braves, but funky antique shops, where he buys curios for his ramshackle flat, and the planetarium, where he loses himself in the beauty of the stars. He is something of a saint as well, spouting gnomic pearls of wisdom ("Why don't you live the way you want?"), while always wearing a beatific smile. With him as guide, she begins to remember herself as a little girl who lost her father and made a wish on a star that never came true. But though seemingly on a different plane from ordinary mortals, Maeno also has a secret -- one with life-and-death consequences.

Here, in its third act, the film shifts from offbeat romance to melodrama about Life Lessons. But Nagasawa, a veteran producer who has worked on several films with Shunji Iwai, is less a shameless audience manipulator than a sharp-eyed observer of modern mores. His sentimental streak, like that of senpai Yamada, is an integral part of his humanism. Without it, his style might be more palatable to the dry-eyed cynics in the audience, but it would also deflate his film to a flavorless slice of life.

As Aiba, TV talent Manaka finds exactly the right tone: flat and dull almost to the point of sullenness, but sensitive to criticism, hungry for respect, dying for love. When she smiles -- a rare event -- she lights up the screen with a wattage reminiscent of Julia Roberts (though her teeth aren't nearly as big). As Maeno, Sakai is hardly ever without a grin, but his angelic act is not grossly offensive. Irritating, yes, offensive, no. Maybe it's the Osaka dialect. Or maybe you have to love a guy who hates the Giants.

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