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Friday, Sept. 14, 2005

Romancing rock 'n' roll


Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Kentaro Otani
Running time: 114 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Female buddy movies are not uncommon, at least not since Ridley Scott's seminal "Thelma and Louise," but the release of two as outwardly similar as Kentaro Otani's "Nana" and Tetsuya Nakashima's "Shimo-tsuna Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)" by the TBS network looks to be less a case of serendipity than clever marketing strategy.

News photo
Aoi Miyazaki (left) and Mika Nakashima in "Nana"

Nakashima's 2004 film, about the quirky friendship between a big-eyed lover of frilly fashions (Kyoko Fukada) and a sneering, leather-clad biker (Anna Tsuchiya), was a hit both in local theaters and on the international festival circuit, while winning several awards and a slot on the prestigious Kinema Junpo Best 10 list.

The buddies in "Nana" are -- guess what? -- a big-eyed young woman (Aoi Miyazaki), girly-girly to the nth degree, and a sneering, leather-clad rocker (Mika Nakashima) who both happen have the same first name.

TBS producers undoubtedly saw "Nana" as a chance to go to the box-office well twice, without seeming to use the same bucket. "Nana," however, is not a rip-off or knock-off, but a product of the pop-culture phenomenon that is Ai Yazawa's eponymous hit manga. Since its debut in the comic magazine "Cookie" five years ago, "Nana" has been compiled in 12 paperback editions that have sold 22 million copies -- the sort of number that always makes me sorry I stopped drawing comics in the eighth grade.

A maker of shrewdly observed, intricately structured examinations into modern urban lives and loves, and a disciple of Eric Rohmer and other French auteurs (as indicated by his films' titles: "Avec Mon Mari," "Travaille"), Otani would seem an unlikely choice for this project. Might as well ask Rohmer to direct an Avril Lavigne video, non?

But Otani hits the big romantic notes that fans of the manga, not to mention viewers of all those full-throated, wet-eyed celebrations of jun-ai ("pure love") on TV, no doubt expect. He also makes extensive use of flashbacks and narration -- devices that tend to undercut the immediacy and urgency of the proceedings.

At the same time, Otani grounds his story in character, not the more usual mix of stereotype and formula. Also, though his two principals may hardly be original types, they are real enough individuals, whose dilemmas cross the barriers of age, sex and culture.

By the big climax, at a rock concert, we feel the weight of those dilemmas, even though the two friends are doing nothing more dramatic than staring intently at a stage. We've all been there, in one form or another, wanting something we can no longer have, reliving moments that are past, regretting decisions that are final.

The first one we meet is Nana Komatsu (Miyazaki), she of the bright eyes, chipper manner and cute, crinkly smile, as if Shirley Temple had been reincarnated as a 20-year-old Japanese provincial girl. She is off to reunite with her high-school sweetheart, Shoji (Yuta Hiraoka), now a student in Tokyo.

On the train she encounters Nana Ozaki (Nakashima), who is also on her way to Tokyo. Though hailing from another boondock, in the far north, Nana O is a hard-core rocker, impeccably cool in her black leathers; her kohl-rimmed eyes glittering with ironic amusement at her new companion's enthusings.

Nothing in common? Not quite; Nana O takes a liking to Nana K, as she might to an eager puppy, while Naka K is impressed by her seatmate's air of sophistication and maturity, though she is exactly the same age.

When they later discover, by chance, that they are both in the market for the same funky old apartment Nana K suggests that they become roommates -- and Nana O agrees. They shop for household furnishings like a pair of newlyweds, with Nana K playing the role of the bubbly bride, Nana O, the indulgent groom.

A happy lesbian couple in the making (or revealing)? Not really; Nana O is madly, but one-sidedly, in love with Ren (Ryuhei Matsuda), a moody guitarist with the band she used to front. He has since gone on to fame and fortune with a J-pop group that goes by the realistically loopy name Trapnest. She wants to succeed in her own right and meet him on equal terms. To that end she forms the Black Stones, a garage band that consists of two high-school mates and a handsome newcomer (Kenichi Matsuyama).

All this striving strikes Nana K as false pride. She would be supremely happy as a traditionally devoted housewife -- or so she believes until she discovers what is really on her Mr. Right's mind.

The two romances driving the plot are mostly par for the TV drama course, though Otani stages the various betrayals and partings with a starkness that is anything but contrived. He also tells the story of the Nanas' friendship without resorting to cliched oil-and-water gags. Instead he shows us, in scene after deftly calibrated scene, why these two not only click, but deeply connect -- and why the real strength of their relationship is a mutual admiration for the qualities one has, but the other lacks.

Miyazaki and Nakashima excel in revealing the hurt and anger behind, respectively, Nana O's smiling mask and Nana K's cool facade. Also, Nakashima, a million-CD-selling rock vocalist in real life, pours it all out in kick-ass stage performances. Amazing -- a Japanese movie about the rock scene that actually rocks.

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