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Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2001

My heart will go on . . . for 1,000 years

Sennen no Koi Hikaru Genji Monogatari

Rating: * * *
Director: Tonko Horikawa
Running time: 143 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing

Fantasy is hot now, with "Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone" in theaters and "Lord of the Rings" arriving in spring. The former is getting the back of many a critic's hand (Salon's Stephanie Zacharek compared it to "a play mounted at a school for rich kids"), while the latter is being hailed as a cinematic Second Coming. Whatever this says about the reviewers, most of whom are more emotionally invested in Tolkien than Rowling, both films are going to make pots of money and fill screens with wizards, elves and other beings derived from British fantasy writing for years to come.

News photo
Yuki Amami as Hikaru Genji in Tonko Horikawa's "Sennen no Koi -- Hikaru Genji Monogatari"

"Sennen no Koi -- Hikaru Genji Monogatari (Genji -- A 1,000 Year Love)" would seem to fall into another genre entirely -- historical drama that is more about its kimono than its performances. But while its Heian-Period frocks are gorgeous enough, "Sennen no Koi" is closer in spirit to "Harry Potter" than the usual period fashion show. It's for the Japanese Hermiones out there.

Though scripted and directed by men -- Akira Hayasaka and Tonko Horikawa -- the film is a feminist reading of Murasaki Shikibu's "The Tale of Genji," as filtered though the sensibility of Takarazuka. To serious students of her 1,000-year-old classic, this reading may be a sacrilege -- or simply absurd. But in taking Murasaki's Shining Prince down a peg for his womanizing, while glorying in the fairyland splendor that he and his fellow Heian aristocrats created, the film manages to be more charmingly light-footed than I had expected from its ponderous pre-release hype. After all, a film advertised as "Toei's 50th anniversary work" is not likely to be a throwaway.

The setting of "Sennen no Koi" is a fantasy Imperial court, where the principals live a dream of refined romantic turmoil, punctured by the occasional murder or childbirth. The film's world, from the sumptuously dressed court ladies plucking at their lutes to the well-fed peasants laboring in the paddies, looks newly minted. And yet everything exists in a Japanesque eternity, as though preserved in an emaki scroll.

The film itself is hardly perfect, however. Horikawa's direction is pedestrian, with few jaw-dropping moments but several head-scratching ones. Who, I wondered, had the idea of opening the film with a helicopter shot of present-day Kyoto, as though it were an NHK travelogue? Also, who hired Seiko Matsuda to play a wandering ghost, who warbles a jarring J-pop commentary on the action?

But Yuki Amami, as Hikaru Genji, single-handedly lifts the film above the mundane. A former Takarazuka star who specialized in male roles, Amami plays Genji with confidence but without campy self-consciousness. She is masculine in every look and movement, while embodying the Shining Prince as an androgynous ideal of beauty and grace -- a trick a mere man, straight or no, would find hard to pull off. The absence of erotic charge in her lovemaking is, given the film's gauzy romanticism, hardly a defect; the intrusion of real male sexuality would break the delicately wrought spell.

The focus of the framing story, however, is Murasaki Shikibu herself, played by the ageless Sayuri Yoshinaga. As it begins, she is living contentedly in the province of Echizen (today's Fukui Prefecture) with her father, brother and young daughter, while diverting herself with an unseemly occupation for a woman -- writing "The Tale of Genji." She is called to Kyoto to instruct the teenage daughter of Fujiwara no Michinaga (Ken Watanabe), a high-ranking court official. When she arrives, she finds that Michinaga and his elder brother Michitaka are competing to win the Emperor's favor for their respective daughters, with the victor becoming the proud -- and powerful -- grandfather to an Imperial heir. Her counterpart in Michitaka's household is Sei Shonagon (Mitsuko Mori), a fierce rival in authorship as well as pedagogy.

Instead of teaching her young charge to become an obedient Imperial consort, however, Murasaki tells her stories from "The Tale of Genji" -- and draws the appropriate lessons on the perfidy of the male species.

The hero, Hikaru Genji (Amami), is the privileged son of an Imperial concubine, who is blessed with looks, intelligence, wealth -- and every other attribute on the Mr. Right checklist. Though married at 12 to Aoi, a girl four years older, the young Genji feels an unconquerable love for his stepmother, the beautiful Fujitsubo (Reiko Takashima), an Imperial consort who uncannily resembles his dead birth mother (as she should, since Reiko Takashima plays both roles). Genji unites with her for one night of illicit passion -- the product of which becomes the Emperor's son.

When the conscience-stricken Fujitsubo withdraws her affections, Genji soothes his loneliness with other older women, one of whom jealously curses the blameless Aoi, causing her death. Disconsolate, Genji retires to the mountains, where he encounters Murasakinoue (Takako Tokiwa), a girl who reminds him of Fujitsubo and becomes the love of his life. This does not mean that he remains faithful to her.

The film takes liberties with both Murasaki's life story and her most famous creation -- understandably, since only a yearlong maxi-series could do justice to both. The biggest departure from previous versions of Murasaki's story is her character's plaintive wish that, in future generations, "women will be free to choose whom to love." Who could argue with that -- or doubt that, in her heart if not her masterpiece, the real-life Murasaki would have agreed?

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