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Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2001
Refuge in the little shop of solace
By KAORI SHOJI
Japanese girl culture acquires a new voice with the release of "Sekai no Owari to Iunano Zakkaten (A Zakka Shop Called The End of the World)," a lovingly crafted debut feature by Kiseki Hamada. Though he's in his mid-30s, Hamada certainly knows his urban-girlhood world, which he balances with his own perceptions of what that girlhood should be.
Based on a short story of the same title by cult novelist Nobara Takemoto, "Sekai no Owari" runs on the twin rails of the ennui of the privileged teenager and the despair/depression of the young Japanese adult. Its source of inspiration are zakka, which literally translated, refers to mundane objects such as clothespins, soap or milk bottles that alleviate or lighten the burden of daily living. Anyone who has wandered into a small zakka shop to pore over old British biscuit tins or to compare the aesthetic merits of dishcloths may understand the appeal of such objects and their potential healing powers.
And healing is exactly what this movie aims for, as the characters voice and enact that underlying sadness that ails Japanese like a low fever, not doing any real damage but taxing enough to slowly drain the spirit. Takemoto's original short story depicts this process well, though he was by no means the first to do it. Modern Japanese literature is defined by this subtle despair: No one is quite happy, but they also realize that their discontent isn't drastic enough to warrant the search for any real solution.
In "Sekai no Owari," a freelance writer called Yukoh (Hidetoshi Nishijima) finds himself at a professional dead end. Writing articles for various magazines seems meaningless, especially when snooty editors tell him to cram as much basic information (such as the diameter of a hamburger on the menu of a popular restaurant) into his pieces as he can.
Sick of their attitude, Yukoh recedes into his own little shell -- only for the owner of his apartment building to then inform him the place is scheduled for demolition. The owner is against this, however, and would like Yukoh to carry on living there and open a business in order to convince the authorities that tenants are still actively using the premises. Yukoh agrees and opens a zakka shop inside his apartment, calling it The End of the World.
Hamada's other protagonist, Koma (Mariko Takahashi), is a high school girl who never seems to have much to say, even among friends. Koma is an only child and prone to introspection -- her hobby is to write and post long letters to herself, which she reads in school with all the air of a lovesick 16-year-old. Her friends are suspicious (and envious) of Koma going off into her own little world and decide to ignore her.
Left alone, Koma finds her way to The End of the World and finds solace in Yukoh's presence, though they hardly ever speak to each other. Few customers come to Yukoh's shop, but that suits the two of them just fine. Their comfortable joint solitude comes to an abrupt end when the owner's son shows up and orders Yukoh to vacate the room; the building is coming down. Crushed, Yukoh asks Koma to go on a trip with him. Koma agrees and the pair take off for the north, where they wander side by side but stay silent. Then reality steps in, in the form of a detective hired by Koma's father to bring her home.
Director Hamada has assembled just the right cast for this project, especially 17-year-old model Mariko Takahashi. Fluttering like an anemic butterfly among the ugly concrete buildings in her short, pleated school-uniform skirt, she is the perfect image of Tokyo girldom.
Takahashi made her debut on the cover of girl mag Olive, and the audience for this kind of flick will certainly include Olive types -- girls who find comfort in things like glass marbles and retro hairpins and who equate girlishness with fragility and ennui. There's a lot of self-indulgence here, not just in the two characters but also in the director who gazes at them with infinite kindness and sympathy.
What a huge difference from, say, "A Very Young Girl," showing at the Shibuya Cinema Society. This is also a picture featuring a morose teenage girl, but one that mercilessly highlights the violence of her budding sexuality. "Sekai no Owari" stays far, far away from such a theme. Though they travel together, Yukoh and Koma never touch, and the climax scene of their relationship involves Koma dancing around on the hardwood floor of an abandoned elementary school. Yukoh leans against the wall and watches her silently. The scene, like a zakka product, is pretty and appealing, but goes no further than that.