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Wednesday, June 11, 2003

Heaven in Hawaii, but where are the natives?

Mana ni Dakarete

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Satoshi Isaka
Running time: 105 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing

Imagine a movie in which an American tourist goes to a remote Japanese island seeking a new start after personal and professional debacles. There she falls in with longtime gaijin residents who are seeped in the local culture and adept at the local crafts. They guide her over several bumps on the path to self-realization and, more importantly, help her to chill out.

News photo
Ayako Kawahara and Hidetoshi Nishijima in "Mana ni Dakarete"

Sounds all right so far? Here's the kicker -- the natives put in little more than token appearances. They are extras on their own island.

Any Hollywood producer, even the sort who knows only three famous Japanese by name (Ichiro, Matsui, Godzilla), would say we have a story problem here. Without a local character or, better yet, a love interest, what's the point of the exercise? Why not just send the tourist to Santa Fe and save on the plane fare?

But the producers of "Mana ni Dakarete (Embraced by Mana)," the new vehicle for supermodel Ayako Kawahara, seem to disagree -- at least if the tourist is Japanese and her destination is the Big Island of Hawaii. Typically, Japanese films and TV shows set in Hawaii tend to portray the place as a sort of glorified Okinawa, where Japanese visitors need make only minimal adjustments to the local culture (including enough English to fit on the back of a flash card). Even so, they usually feature major Hawaiian characters (who are inevitably fluent in Nihongo, even if they have never set foot in Japan).

"Mana ni Dakarete," however, is less about the real Big Island and its original inhabitants than the mysterious entity known as the spirit, or mana, of the land, which as the film keeps telling us through words and tourist-brochure images, is there for anyone with the sensitivity to feel it, native or no. Fair enough, though I wonder how the natives of, say, Shikoku would react to Hawaiians who claim to "understand the spirit" of their island.

It's not that director Satoshi Isaka ("Focus," "Doubles") is an arrogant colonizer, appropriating the local culture for his own dubious ends. He makes a sincere attempt to get beneath the tourist veneer, to show us a Hawaii that still has much to offer a frazzled Tokyoite.

He also clearly has an agenda beyond selling the Land of Aloha -- namely, celebrating the fabulousness of Kawahara, who is starring in a film for the first time in 14 years, since her debut in Yoshimitsu Morita's "Kitchen." There is a lot to celebrate, though Isaka focuses on her legs, those magnificent twin towers that have dominated a thousand runways.

She plays Nagisa, a former marketing executive who has come to the Big Island to recover after being dumped by her company and her lover. Ever the hustling saleswoman, she also intends to close a rep deal with the local maker of a pareu she has hung on her apartment wall -- its painted scene of an island sunset has consoled and inspired her.

Nagisa ends up at a small seaside inn run by an enigmatic Japanese chap named Kai (Keizo Kanie) who individualizes his menus by consulting Hawaiian pictographs (somewhat the way a fortuneteller delves into the I Ching, to find a client's karmic profile) and gives her a reviving fruit drink he calls the "gift of the gods." Her nerves calmed, she crashes into blissful oblivion.

The hotel, she soon discovers, has only one other guest, a young Japanese guy named Jun (Hidetoshi Nishijima), who has been dispatched by his father, a real-estate developer, to scout resort sites. His real interest, however, is photography. Even more close-mouthed than Kai, he gives Nagisa a frosty reception, making it clear he doesn't care for her go-go career-woman act. But as she unwinds, he begins to show some sympathy, if not romantic interest.

Nagisa tracks down the maker of her pareu -- a Japanese woman, Yumi (Yoshiko Miyazaki), living in seclusion with her vivacious teenage daughter, Emi (Minami). Emi supports Nagisa's quest, but Yumi rebuffs her, saying she would never sell her precious pareu to "someone like you." "Time has stopped for her," Emi tells Nagisa -- but doesn't explain why her mother has closed her pareu workshop.

Nagisa is not easily discouraged -- she will get her pareu somehow -- but is still a long way from understanding the Hawaiian way of life. Kai, Jun and Emi act as her guides, but her real teacher is the island itself, in all its natural splendor -- and danger.

As Nagisa, Kawahara is not a full-of-herself diva but more of an older-sister type, a good sport who is unafraid of looking klutzy and clueless on screen. True, she is a ravishing klutz, but sees no need to underline that fact. Her combination of leonine good looks and frank self-confidence has its Hollywood parallels -- think Katharine Hepburn in her "Philadelphia Story" prime -- but is rare in Japanese films.

Who would you cast with her in a romantic drama? Hard to think of names, isn't it? Little wonder she ends up in a film like "Mana ni Dakarete," where her male leads play a sexless sage (Kanie) and a stiff one-with-nature type (Nishijima).

She, and Hawaii itself, make the film mostly a pleasure to watch, though. Too bad her producers didn't invite more of the locals to the party. They might have made Nagisa's search for the "real thing," well, real.

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