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Wednesday, May 26, 2004

Self-improvement in the sugar cane



Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Tetsuo Shinohara
Running time: 123 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens May 29
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Getting away from it all means different things to different people, doesn't it? Your dream vacation may be a hammock on a tropical beach; mine is trudging up Mount Fuji with 10,000 other hikers (mainly because I'm a masochist and can't afford the air fare to the tropical beach).

News photo
(from top left) Nao Omori, Masami Nagasawa, Hiroki Narimiya, Karina, Shosuke Tanihara, Sayaka Kaneko and Sayaka Kuon in "Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo"

But how many people, masochists included, would voluntarily fly to a tiny island off Okinawa and chop sugar cane for one month? In Tetsuo Shinohara's "Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo (The Necessity of Deep Breathing)," the answer is Japanese twentysomethings who want to refreshen their hearts and minds under the blue Okinawan sky . . . or something like that. Because what is clear from the beginning about Shinohara's seven cane-cutting heroes is they have pasts they want to hide, demons they hope to exorcise.

This may sound like dull psychodrama (postadolescents baring their souls in the cane fields), but Shinohara makes the job and all that goes with it look bone-achingly, even attractively, real. And this is not the first time. In 1993 he released "Kusa no Ue no Shigoto (Work On the Grass)," a 16-mm short feature about two men sent to cut a field of grass in the middle of nowhere. In that film he portrayed the relationship between a cool professional "lawn-mower man" and a bumbling writer with the precision of one who has been there himself, who knows why what looks, from the outside, like mindless drudgery can be a kind of bliss. It's a movie that makes you want to flop into a pile of heavenly smelling cut grass and stare up at the clouds.

That same sense of experience -- and enjoyment -- is present in "Shinkokyu no Hitsuyo." Shinohara not only spent 35 days with his cast and crew shooting on two Okinawan islands, but recorded the entire cane-cutting process, from the first awe-struck look at the 70,000 ripe stalks to the last ceremonial cut in a cleared field. Many directors would relegate the actual work to the background -- Shinohara makes it a central part of his story.

In the course of the film his young actors become tanned, fit and handy with the tools of the cane-cutting trade. Though they probably didn't chop all 70,000 stalks themselves, they no doubt developed an appreciation of those who did, and that change is reflected in a deepening of their performances. By the time they get around to baring their souls, we are more persuaded that they have them.

The film begins with five getting off a boat together at a tiny port, but barely speaking to each other, even after they realize they are all there to cut cane for the same old couple, Granny (Taeko Yoshida) and Grandpa (Sabu Kitamura) Taira.

Outgoing Hinami (Karina) has been temping in Tokyo and looking for a new direction (and, as it soon seems obvious, a new man); moody, sharp-tongued Daisuke (Hiroki Narimiya) is a college boy on vacation; tall, thirtyish, sagely smiling Shuichi (Shosuke Tanihara) doesn't seem to belong (but is Hinami's idea of Mr. Right); ditzy Etsuko (Sayaka Kaneko) arrives dolled up for a resort vacation, right down to her long, painted nails; shy Kanako (Masami Nagasawa) looks like a squelched virgin and says nothing beyond her name.

Their foreman is the brisk, bronzed Yutaka (Nao Omori), who helps the Tairas every year and makes a living going from harvest to harvest, something like an educated migrant worker, with options.

None of the five newbies quite realized what they were getting into: 35 days of back-breaking labor. If they fail to cut the cane, their kindly hosts, the Tairas, will face ruin. Yutaka, camp-counselor-like, tries cajoling them into something resembling enthusiasm and competence, but the work goes slowly as resentment builds. They are free spirits and privileged children of the middle class -- not slaves! Finally Etsuko and Daisuke, the two most disgruntled of the lot, make their escape. Will anyone but Yutaka and the Tairas be left when the 35 days are up?

Answering this question, the story follows a fairly predictable arc: showdowns, revelations and the inevitable bonding. The film occasionally lurches toward the melodramatic venting that "Kusa no Ue no Shigoto" avoided, but not too far. Mostly, Shinohara keeps the focus where it belongs: in the field, where the changes of the heart take shape and grow.

This may strike some as overly romantic; real-life field work is hardly the road to sainthood. For most of those who do it, it's just a paycheck, one of the hardest-earned on the planet. But for Shinohara's heroes it offers a socially sanctioned escape, though not quite the one they bargained for. Instead of the splendid isolation they probably imagined, they end up in close quarters, day and night, with other human beings, doing the same things, eating the same food and -- who knows? -- dreaming the same dreams.

This sort of communal labor used to be the norm here, but not in the Westernized, individualized, cubicled Japan of today. And though Shinohara is no cultural conservative, pining for the good old feudal days, he does show us that something has been lost. He didn't make me want to cut cane for a month, but he did make me want to get out of the theater, smell something other than Ginza air and plant grass.



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