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Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Time for oldies to come out and play

Pretty Women

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Takayoshi Watanabe
Running time: 111 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

The Japanese film industry often targets its product at narrow demographic niches. The audience for the typical idol movie looks like a junior high school assembly; for the typical family melodrama, more like a junior high PTA meeting -- overwhelmingly middle-aged and female.

News photo
The cast of "Pretty Women" put on a show

Takayoshi Watanabe's "Pretty Women" is pitched at what might be called the gateball crowd. Based on a true story, the film describes the travails and triumphs of a group of elderly women who, with absolutely no theatrical experience, put on a play for a community festival in a provincial city.

This is familiar stuff -- references range from "Babes in Arms" to "Waterboys" -- and Watanabe and his scriptwriters do the expected with it: minor crisis, major crisis, followed by the big, life-affirming climax. Am I giving anything away by saying the ladies' play is a success? Probably not, unless you can point to one "let's put on a show" movie that ended with a floperoo.

Even so, "Pretty Women" is more than another feel-good slice of entertainment for the old folks. A sextet of veteran professionals, led by Keiko Awaji, act the parts of amateurs who, in the course of the film, move up the scale from laughably atrocious to movingly effective -- if not exactly good. It's not the easiest of acting assignments, but they bring it off with energy and precision; their technique lifts the film above the usual genre level. Also, for all its TV-friendly mugging, the film never condescends to its just-folks characters: Its grannies may be living ordinary lives in a nowhere burg, but they emerge as women of character, grit and, yes, style.

The film begins with the six heroines drifting through their days as members of a social circle called the Tomoshibi-kai (Lamp Society). Their idea of excitement: A trip to a local onsen. Then a hyperactive city-hall bureaucrat (Tetsu Masuoka) and his phlegmatic, if fetching, assistant (Mikako Ichikawa) ask them to put on a performance for the upcoming community festival. Their leader, the irrepressible Aoi (Awaji), has the brain wave of staging a play, using a script penned by her granddaughter Kanako (Naomi Nishida), who has recently returned from Tokyo after failing to make it as a TV scriptwriter. The play, a weepy family drama, appeals to the other ladies and they agree to give it a go, with Kanako reluctantly serving as director.

They endure the trials of casting (everyone wants to play the family's young daughter, but someone has to take the roles of the father and snotty-nosed younger brother). Then one of the members, the shy Ikuyo (Reiko Kusamura), has trouble remembering her lines. When the others suggest cuts and changes, Kanako storms out: After being scorned by big-wheel TV producers, getting script advice from grannies is the last straw.

This crisis passes and they start to make progress, despite the doubting Thomases among their families and others around them. Won't they end up embarrassing themselves? Shouldn't they attend to their knitting -- or go soak in an onsen?

But the Tomoshibi-kai soldiers on, until something happens that brings their rehearsals to a shuddering halt. What, if anything, can get them going again?

The questions the film raises go beyond the success or failure of the play itself, however. Do the elderly still have a vital role to play in society? Or should they resign themselves to their place in the Confucian scheme of things, as honored-but-dependent elders, quietly enduring the inevitable?

The film's answer to the former question is a resounding "yes," to the latter, "no." An indication, maybe, that Japan's attitude toward its older citizens is changing. Or perhaps, I should say, that the attitude of Japan's older citizens is changing. Japanese films about the elderly aimed at middle-agers are still nearly always about granny or grandad's slide into senility. More of this demographic should see "Pretty Women," not only for its delivered-as-promised laughs and tears, but also for a new appreciation of life on the far side of 60.

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