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Friday, Sept. 23, 2005

It's just you and me, babe

Sekai no Owari

Rating: * * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Shiori Kazama
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

I used to ask myself why Japanese directors made so many films about postadolescents living on the social fringes and going nowhere fast career-wise, relationship-wise or any-wise. Then I noticed that the people around me in the theater, usually on a weekday afternoon, looked an awful lot like the people on the screen. It was as though the director were conducting a group therapy session with an audience who resembled him and his characters in everything from skimpy resumes to faded jeans. Truth be told, I had my own period of what the Japanese call "moratorium" (translation: "bumming around"), but I have also long since had my fill of "moratorium" films.

News photo
Kiyohiko Shibukawa and Mami Nakamura in Shiori Kazama's "Sekai no Owari"

Born in 1966, Shiori Kazama has become something of a "moratorium" specialist, making films such as "Fuyu no Kawa (How Old Is the River)" (1995) and "Kasei no Canon (Mars Canon)" (2002) about twentysomethings who find the usual trappings of adulthood -- marriage, family, real job -- hard, if not impossible, to achieve.

She has also been evolving as a director, however, as her latest film, "Sekai no Owari" (World's End/Girl Friend) shows. Once again an unconventional loner heroine is searching for love, but is unwilling to settle for the usual approximation. She and most of the other principals are past their first youth, however -- and becoming more aware (dimly, in some cases) that their horizons are no longer endless.

They are also real, quirky personalities, not generational stereotypes or directorial stand-ins. Also, their problems are more clearly defined than is usual in "moratorium" films, whose stories tend to be formless almost by definition. There are even flashes of self-deprecating humor -- another departure from the solemn, self-important genre norm. Instead of dreaming up new ways to express my boredom ("like waiting for Godot's paint to dry"), I found myself interested, amused -- relating. There, in a distant universe, once went I.

"Sekai no Owari" begins in a bonsai store run by the sharp-eyed, quick-tongued Yukihiko Mi-sawa (Keishi Nagatsuka). Openly bisexual, Misawa is attracted to his ruggedly handsome, endearingly flaky employee Shinnosuke (Kiyohiko Shibukawa), who has a talent for picking up girls, but trouble remembering their names.

One day, an acquaintance of Shinnosuke's, Haruko (Mami Nakamura), shows up at the store and announces that her live-in boyfriend has kicked her out. She pours out her tale of woe to Shinnosuke, but fends him off when he offers a consoling hug -- and more. She does, however, end up crashing at the store -- and an unusual triangle is formed.

A strong-willed type, Haruko doesn't get along with the hard-nosed proprietor (Kumiko Tsuchiya) of the beauty shop where she works. Haruko's careless treatment of an attractive male customer leads to an argument with her boss -- and Haruko walks. With time hanging heavy, she accompanies Shinnosuke on his rounds -- and tells him about a recurring dream about the end of the world, in which only she and a lover survive.

If this were a standard junai (pure love) drama, we could see to the climax from here. The only question would be who meets the Grim Reaper first -- Haruko or Shinnosuke. But Kazama, who also wrote the screenplay, is more subtle and less manipulative. Instead of jerking tears, she shows us what the dream says about Haruko -- and how it becomes a reality, though not in the way Haruko, or Shinnosuke, for that matter, expect.

It's also not clear that this pair will end up together, period: When they eat ramen, Shinnosuke takes only the white of the hard-boiled egg; Haruko, only the yolk. More seriously, Shinnosuke is a serial seducer who can't break the habit, while Haruko is forever packing up her suitcase and trundling it from one temporary refuge to another. Misawa? He has his own agenda -- getting Shinnosuke into his bed -- and is not shy about revealing it.

In telling this story, Kazama opts for neither arty minimalism (strict rationing of cuts, close-ups and camera movements) nor trendy flash (endless hand-held shots, off-kilter angles and jump edits). Instead she carefully structures each scene and each shot, using phrases, gestures and objects (the eggs and suitcase) that seem random, comic or odd, but gain a deeper significance as we come to know the characters and their dilemmas.

The message: Small choices and chance encounters can have large consequences. And the world is not only strange, but ends for all of us. Certain directors (I'm thinking of Kiyoshi Kurosawa in particular) would deliver this message with a shudder of horror. Kazama takes a longer, more relaxed view. Her people may dig themselves deep into holes -- but they can still look up and enjoy the view.

How are they going to climb out? Kazama isn't telling -- possibly until her first postmoratorium film.

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