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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Elephant boy attempts bringing up big babies

Hoshi ni Natta Shonen

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Shunsaku Kawage
Running time: 113 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Animal films are big again in Japan, after the thumping success last year of Yoichi Sai's "Quill." Based on a true story, this heart-warmer about a lovable Seeing Eye dog and its grumpy middle-aged master grossed 2.2 billion yen in Japan and was a hit across Asia.

News photo
Yuya Yagira in "Hoshi ni Natta Shonen"

Japan's first cinematic animal wave -- or rather ark -- was launched in 1979 by Koreyoshi Kurahara's hit documentary "Kita Kitsune Monogatari (The Glacier Fox)." The peak came in 1983, with Kurahara's "Nankyoku Monogatari (Antarctica)," whose animal heroes were two dogs left to face an Antarctic winter by a Japanese research team. It set a box-office record for a domestic film that stood until 1997, when Hayao Miyazaki's "Mononoke Hime (Princess Mononoke)" swept all before it.

"Quill" rode a pop-culture wave of a different type -- for true-life narratives about ordinary folks who triumph over disability, while learning life lessons. Fuji TV, which made "Nankyoku Monogatari," has now followed in "Quill's" wake with "Hoshi ni Natta Shonen (Shining Boy and Little Randy)," yet another film, taken from a true story, about the human-animal bond -- and its life-changing consequences.

Its human hero is Tetsu (Yuya Yagira), a teenage boy living on a Hokkaido animal ranch run by his feisty mother (Takako Tokiwa) and his bumbling stepfather (Ka-tsumi Takahashi). The family's business is hiring out its animals, including a chimp and various dogs and cats, for film and TV work.

This should be a dream-come-true for Tetsu and his two younger siblings -- adorable kiddies who are mostly set decoration -- but the family finances are in dire straits and Tetsu's classmates rag him for his alleged barnyard smell. Then Mom has a brainstorm -- buy an elephant.

Tetsu quickly establishes a rapport with the new arrival, a bull called Mickey, talking to him much the way Dr. Doolittle did to his menagerie. Encouraged by this success, Mom buys a second elephant, an obstreperous baby called Randy who proves impossible to handle, even for Tetsu.

Discouraged, Tetsu is about to give up when he hears about a school in Thailand for elephant riders. He asks his mother if he can enroll and, after a bit of hemming and hawing, she says yes. His big adventure is about to begin.

Meanwhile, his earthy, straight-talking grandmother (Mitsuko Baisho) and pretty, sweet-tempered classmate Emi (Yu Aoi) are in the background lending support and, in Emi's case, something more. So far, so predictable: After overcoming the inevitable setbacks in Thailand, Tetsu will return in triumph to Japan -- and Emi, of course.

At this point in the story, I wondered why Fuji TV hadn't done the logical thing and turned this property into a TV series, like the decades-spanning family drama "Kita no Kuni Kara (From the North Country)" and nature writer Mu-tsugoro's documentaries. Like "Hoshi ni Natta Shonen," both were set in Hokkaido and both fed the public's endless (and, for the networks, endlessly profitable) fascination with life close to nature in the Great White North.

"Hoshi ni Natta Shonen," however, takes another turn entirely and, in the process, becomes more than just another animal epic. I won't spoil the twist for you here, though it is all over the Internet, somewhat like the controversial last act of "Million Dollar Baby." I will say, though, that if it were pure fiction, it would be a grab at the heartstrings shameless even by Japanese tearjerker standards.

A hallmark of Japanese animal films is their made-for-TV plotting and direction and "Hoshi ni Natta Shonen" is no exception. Director Shunsaku Kawage, a Fuji TV veteran making his feature debut, does his plodding best to individualize his pachyderm cast, but his idea of a dramatic closeup is an elephantine eye with tears trickling through the wrinkles, like an aerial view of the Mississippi delta. (How did he get the elephants to cry on cue? The classic ploy -- a directorial pinch at the crucial moment, wouldn't work, would it?)

Yuya Yagira, who won a best actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year for his performance in Hirokazu Kore-eda's "Nobody Knows," is the ideal Tetsu, connecting naturally and closely with both the human and animal cast. At the same time, he projects a raw adolescent's loneliness and rage, not the typical teen-idol preening.

Takako Tokiwa downplays her cosmetics-model beauty, while displaying her spunk and fiber, a la Katharine Hepburn. She can't, however, overcome the miscasting of rubber-faced comedian Katsumi Takahashi, who is less a husband than a hired hand. It is as if Kate had been paired with Bert Lahr -- famous for playing the Cowardly Lion in "The Wizard of Oz" -- instead of Cary Grant in "Bringing Up Baby."

The elephants are the real deal, however, as well as being the real point of the film. Wisely, Kawage keeps them in the foreground, while detailing their care and training in his best Mutsugoro manner. Animal movie fans will approve, as will tourist officials in Hokkaido and Thailand, which are made to look like paradises. Fuji will probably soon be trumping another box office success. What next? Harness those sled dogs -- back to Antarctica!

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