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Wednesday, March 16, 2005
SPIRIT OF 'SAKURA'
Directing duo blossoms
In 1990, shortly after I started reviewing for The Japan Times, I saw a film by a former porno director, Shun Nakahara, that made me think I was not wasting my time after all.
Called "Sakura no Sono," it was a drama about two hours in the life of a drama club at a girls' high school, just before it stages Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard."
Working from a script by Hiroaki Jinno, Nakahara filmed not just a slice of teenage life, but a complete world, populated by 22 girls who revealed not just their comic quirks, but their sexual longings, hidden fears and inner lives.
The film made many such lists besides mine, including the most prestigious, the Kinema Junpo Best 10, while winning several domestic awards. Abroad, though, the reaction was muted: "Sakura no Sono" was not invited to major foreign film festivals or talked up by important foreign critics.
In the 15 years since, the Japanese New Wave has come and gone, producing several directors who are now among the international elite, such as Takeshi Kitano and Hirokazu Kore-eda, and several others with overseas cult followings, such as Takashi Miike and Hideo Nakata. Nakahara is in neither group, though he has continued to work steadily, making films like "Lie, Lie, Lie," "Coquille," "Colorful" and "Consent" in the same naturalistic, humanistic vein as "Sakura no Sono."
He also has his fervent fans, including Tsutomu Takahashi, a manga artist responsible for the "Alive" and "Sky High" comics, both of which were filmed by Ryuhei Kitamura.
When Takahashi heard that two of the actresses in "Sakura no Sono" -- Miho Miyazawa and Aki Kajiwara -- had written a script inspired by Nakahara's masterpiece about a female manga artist, he decided to become its producer. Meanwhile, Kajiwara had already approached Nakahara about directing it, but he hesitated to assume what he called the "responsibility" of a followup.
The two men finally hit on an unusual, but mutually satisfactory arrangement: They would both direct Miyazawa and Kajiwara in the two starring roles.
Their film, "Ichigo no Kakera (Ichigo Chips)," is not a sequel, but resembles "Sakura no Sono" in its unforced pacing, close observation of character and clear recognition of the way past acts can ripple through present lives, changing them -- or putting them on hold. But where the former film unfolded in the hypercharged atmosphere of adolescence, in which two hours can seem like a lifetime, the new one starts as its heroines are entering their fourth decade, when youth is fading and the future can stretch out like a long, dimly lit trail to nowhere.
They are Ichigo Nekoda (Kajiwara), a spoiled, selfish, creatively blocked manga artist, and Tomoko (Miyazawa), her long-suffering manager. Ichigo last had a hit 12 years ago with "Cherry Road," a shojo manga (girls' comic) that ended with a frame of the handsome hero's motorbike fallen on the road -- and the hero nowhere in sight. Ichigo still has her fans, including girls who approach her for autographs at a former assistant's wedding, but they are dwindling in number and no one knows it better than Tomoko, every time she looks at her bank balance.
After the reception -- and getting her bellyful of well-meaning words of encouragement from Tomoko and Sakai (Mantaro Koichi), her equally long-suffering editor, Ichigo goes to a favorite transvestite bar. There she pours out her frustrations to the straight-talking mama (Karuseru Maki) and flamboyantly friendly bar boy (Masahiro Komoto). Reeling home, she has a close encounter with a passing truck -- and wakes up in the beach house managed by the real-life model for her hero (Manabu Oshio), who died in a motorbike accident and was the love of her teenage life.
If this were the ordinary junai ("pure love") drama we would have crossed over to "Fantasy Island" (or rather "Beach"), never to return. The film, however, soon returns us to reality and Ichigo's hospital room, where she is recovering from the accident.
This close encounter with death -- and her past -- gives Ichigo the inspiration she and everyone around her have long been waiting for. The drawings begin to fly off her pen, but they don't, Sakai soon sees, make a saleable manga. And Ichigo still can't let go of the boy she believes she sent to his death so long ago.
Ichigo's story sounds shojo manga-esque (as it should, since it was the basis for "Cherry Road"), but Nakahara and Takahashi tell it with little of the usual shojo manga romanticizing and caricaturing.
Instead of being a lovably eccentric woman-child, Ichigo is an adult artist with a difficult personality, facing a hard career crunch. Instead of being the ever-faithful acolyte, Tomoko is fed up with her thankless job and not totally upfront with Ichigo about a person important to them both. She also has an existence separate from Ichigo's as a single mother who longs for a stable life and a steady income. At the same time, there is a strong, unbreakable current running between these two -- they are, like it or not, friends for life.
This willingness to see his characters as they are, in all their human waywardness, is a hallmark of Nakahara's work. It informs "Ichigo no Kakera" from its beginning, in a storm of falling cherry blossoms, to its ending, which comes from all that went before, but has a transformative rightness that catches you by surprise.
The spirit of "Sakura no Sono" still lives. This time, will anyone notice?