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Friday, Oct. 28, 2005

No ditching the winning formula

Haru no Yuki

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Isao Yukisada
Running time: 150 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Oct. 29
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Isao Yukisada has become Japan's lesser David Lean -- a maker of big-budget, big-scale dramas set in a romanticized, sanitized past, that celebrates the purest of pure love. His "Doctor Zhivago" was "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out Love, In the Center of the World)," better known as "Sekachu," a drama of tragic teenage passion that grossed 8.5 billion yen last year. His followup, in January, was "Kita no Zero-nen (Year One in the North)," a drama of love, loss and survival in 19th-century Hokkaido, with Sayuri Yoshinaga bearing up bravely in the face of various disasters. The gross: 3 billion yen plus.

News photo
Yuko Takeuchi and Satoshi Tsumabuki in "Haru no Yuki" (C) 2005 HARU NO YUKI SEISAKU IINKAI

Now Yukisada is going for a box-office trifecta with "Haru no Yuki (Spring Snow)," a Taisho Era (1912-1926) period-piece based on the eponymous 1968 novel by Yukio Mishima. He may well get it.

Lushly photographed by Mark Pin-Bing Lee and starring Satoshi Tsumabuki and Yuko Takeuchi, "Haru no Yuki" has a glazed veneer of art -- and wrings out every last sigh and tear from every imaginable jun'ai dorama ("pure love drama") cliche.

A guy and girl destined from childhood to be One? Gotcha. Pride going before the guy's fall -- into love? Check. Class divisions causing antagonisms, rifts and other negative vibes? Right. Selfish parental plans for a loveless arranged marriage? Yup. And more, much more.

It's not that Yukisada reduces Mishima's novel to formulaic drivel -- if anything he overdoes the reverence to the point of paralysis. But he knows that the film's target audience -- the same women who made "Sekachu" such a hit -- are mostly TV addicts, not serious lit fans, who like easy-to-read images, not obscure allusions. He obliges with shots of butterflies as fluttering stand-ins for the soul and the inevitable cough of blood signaling doom. It's not so much that he dumbs down the story, as he makes it thuddingly obvious.

Meanwhile, he elevates "Haru no Yuki" above the common run of TV product with ornate period atmospherics that shout "quality" from every frame, but feel stultifying, like two hours in an over-heated, over-decorated Edwardian parlor.

Tsumabuki's hero, Kiyoaki Matsugae, begins the film as an 18-year-old idealist, perfectionist and egotist raised by his nouveau riche parents in the sort of Westernized luxury unimaginable to most of his contemporaries. That is to say, he is a superior, sarcastic and generally insufferable jerk, especially when he is in the company of Satoko Aya-kura, the daughter of an old aristocratic family who is far higher on the social scale than his own.

Satoko, two years older, has loved Kiyoaki since his parents sent him as a boy to be raised in her house so as to learn the aristocratic graces that only a family of impeccable breeding could impart. The refined product of that breeding, Satoko remains sweetly patient in the face of Kiyoaki's sneers and rebuffs. She is the doormat who glories in the mud from his boots, certain that her love will turn it to gold.

Feel your feminist hackles rising already? But all is not what it seems. Kiyoaki, as his stout-hearted best friend, Honda (Sosuke Takaoka), often reminds him, is also in love with Satoko -- only his false pride keeps him from admitting it. Meanwhile, both sets of parents are eager for the union of this pair, which would bring one side status, the other much needed wealth. Instead, Kiyoaki tries to fob off Satoko on two foppish princes from Siam, who are in Japan as exchange students.

Then Satoko's parents receive a marriage offer from a member of the Royal Family and, dreaming of past glories restored, pressure her to accept it. The Emperor himself officially approves the engagement, making it legally unbreakable. Now that Kiyoaki can no longer have what he loudly proclaimed he never wanted, he suddenly has a change of heart and comes down off his perch -- Satoko must be his, at whatever the cost.

Does this sound monstrously selfish -- or splendidly dashing? I vote for the former, but in any event, Kiyoaki woos and wins her, starting with an amorous ride in her family's horse-drawn coach -- while revealing the ardent young heart beneath the jaded mask. Meanwhile, Satoko, emboldened by her love, defies her calculating parents, her smarmy chaperon (Michiyo Okusu) and her whole class. This paragon of female masochism reveals herself as a strong, passionate rebel.

The denouement of this affair is of a piece with the rest -- high romanticism of the traditionally overwrought sort. The usual label is sure chigai -- a drama of ships passing in the night, with one or both sinking.

Playing those ships, Tsumabuki and Takeuchi generate little heat in the opening scenes, repressed or otherwise. When their subterranean passions finally burst to the surface, they feel, less vital and real, than dictated by the exigencies of the plot.

Only in their brief idylls, away from family and society, do the two principals truly unleash the youthful energy -- and eroticism -- that made them stars. In those scenes, they are finally out of the stuffy parlor -- and breathing in the fresh, intoxicating, inexplicable air of love.

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