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Wednesday, Jan. 26, 2005
Fairytales for women of all ages
Love is in the air -- or rather in the multiplex. Not that it's ever been away, but love stories are trendy now, following the monster success last year of Isao Yukisada's romantic drama "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out Love in the Center of the World)," better known simply as "Sekachu," and "Winter Sonata," the weepy TV series that spawned the current craze for all things Korean.
Takashi Minamoto's "Tokyo Tower" is trying for a demographic twofer: the women-of-a-certain-age who sighed over dreamy "Winter Sonata" star Bae Yong Joon and the under-25's who wept over "Sekachu's" tale of tragic teenage love.
Based on a novel by Kaori Ekuni about two 30-plus women who take younger lovers, "Tokyo Tower" is wish fulfillment raised to the nth-power. The elder of the two, Shifumi (Hitomi Kuroki), dines only in the fanciest restaurants, wears only the most fashionable designer clothes and never looks less than fabulous, though she never darkens the door of a gym or an "esthetic" salon. Her husband, a worldly, sophisticated "CM planner" (Goro Kishitani), never bats an eye at her extravagances. True, she runs an upscale jewelry shop in Aoyama, but it seems to be more of a hobby than a serious revenue generator.
Rather than delve into the mystery of Shifumi's finances, however, the film takes the high road from scene one. Shifumi, we learn, has been having an affair for the past three yearswith Toru (Junichi Okada), the artistic and sexy, if foppish-looking, son of a friend (Kimiko Yo). He is 21, she is 20 years older, but they are deeply in love, without a hint of the sordid. Toru may live in a spacious pad filled with pricey old books, paintings and other "beautiful things" he says he needs and loves -- but nary a yen visibly passes from her hand to his.
Instead, he sits anxiously by the phone, waiting for her call, every afternoon at 4, with Rachmaninoff's Concerto No. 2 in C Minor (a gift from Shifumi) on the CD player. Then, when it comes, he rushes out to join her for another refined gourmet meal, another blissful tumble under the silk sheets, another soulful, poetic conversation about life. Outside is Tokyo Tower in all its night-lit glory, a soaring, glowing symbol of their romance.
Rather too much, isn't it? As if they knew that even the starry-eyed couldn't swallow this confection whole, Miyamoto and scriptwriter Miho Nakazono balance it with more down-to-earth fare: the liaison between Toru's punkish buddy Koji (Jun Matsumoto) and Kimiko (Shinobu Terashima), a desperate 35-year-old housewife fed up with her cold, crude husband, her bossy, haughty mother-in-law and her joyless existence in general.
These two meet in a parking garage where pouty-lipped Koji is working as a security guard, his beautifully layered hair spilling out from under his cap. At her request, he parks her car, maneuvering it with almost contemptuous ease into a tight spot -- a symbol of how he deals with women. He also quickly susses that she is unhappy and what she wants him to do about it. They start meeting on her breaks from her housewifely duties. She offers him money, which he admirably refuses. He not-so-admirably neglects to tell her about his girlfriend, Yuri (Rosa Kato). He does tell Toru about Kimiko, but Toru doesn't approve; he's for May-September love, against two-timing.
The drama begins, as it often does in affairs, with unpleasant revelations and unexpected arrivals. Romance threatens to descend into farce as expensive champagne is poured over an expensive dress, as a lover gets the boot from an angry husband. The film, however, never winks at these violent goings-on. In other words, it never shatters its carefully built illusions.
Toru is the most sociologically interesting character. He's a boy who plays the traditional girl's pining and sighing role, while stoutly resisting the usual label for his sort: gigolo. Okada, a singer with the boy band V6 and star of last year's hit comedy "Kisarazu Cat's Eye," plays Toru on high burn, with welcome flashes of grit.
The strongest performance, though, is that of Terashima, winner of the Japan Academy's Best Actress award last year for her work in "Vibrator" and "Akame Shijuha-taki Shinju Misui." As Kimiko, she is always either on the edge or actually exploding from frustration and rage, but she wants no pity, from either her partner or the audience. Instead she has a fierce, if shaky, dignity, best expressed in a flamenco number performed on stage, before a packed house. Almost any other Japanese actress would have looked faintly ridiculous or worse, swirling her skirts and glaring into space; Terashima looks possessed. In conveying the touch of madness that descends on those truly in love, aged appropriately or no, she breathes real life into the film's gaudily lit tower of dreams.