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Friday, Dec. 9, 2005

Schoolgirl saves day as the kids run wild

Ookami Shojo

Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Yoshihiro Fukagawa
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
[See Japan Times movie listings]

Childhood still comes in many varieties, but what used to be the standard model -- kids playing outside for hours at a time without adult supervision -- is now under threat, if not yet extinct, in Japan and my own country, the United States.

News photo
Mao Ohno and Tatsuya Suzuki in "Ookami Shojo"

Today's Huck Finns and Becky Thatchers are usually shuttling between school lessons, soccer practice and computer screens, with fresh-air time limited to their commutes (not even that if Mom is driving them).

Thus a film like Yoshihiro Fukagawa's "Ookami Shojo (When the Show Tent Came to My Town)" probably seems as exotic to many kids here today as "Huckleberry Finn," though its setting and period -- a provincial town in the early 1970s -- are familiar to millions of their parents.

The film's 10-year-old protagonists don't float down the Mississippi, or even the Tonegawa, on rafts, but they spend most of their down time outdoors, living in their own world and playing by their own rules.

Sounds idyllic, doesn't it? But Fukagawa's debut feature, based on Tomoko Ogawa's award-winning script, also has its dark, hidden side, bordering on the fantastic. Also, several of its characters, including the one of the title (literal translation: "Wolf Girl") verge on the cartoony, or incredible.

The film's insights into the delights and fears of childhood, at least as it once commonly was, run deep and true, however.

Watching it for a second time at the Theater Shinjuku late show, I mentally checked off a long list of things my younger self had in common with its dreamy hero, Akira (Tatsuya Suzuki), including speculating baselessly about beings in the center of the Earth, fleeing for my young life across fields and streams from a gang of bullies, digging a deep hole in the middle of nowhere and lurking outside a sideshow tent, fascinated but terrified to go in.

I did not, though, ever encounter a girl quite like Rumiko (Mao Ohno), a transfer student in Akira's class who is cute, bright, personable and fashionably turned out, by contemporary fourth-grade standards. Popular with the other girls and an idol to more than a few of the boys, Rumiko would seem to have it made from the get go, but she has an almost frighteningly (for Akira) strong character and sense of justice.

She leaps immediately to the defense of not only Akira, as he is beset by two of the bullies, but Hideko (Rena Masuda), a big, blossoming girl scorned by her classmates for her wild hair and tattered clothes and, as the boys soon note, lack of a bra. Rumiko makes Hideko her cause, in which she enlists a reluctant Akira, who has a crush on Rumiko, but no desire to be a martyr.

He does, however, have an overwhelming curiosity about a carny show that has set up for business on the grounds of a nearby temple -- and is declared off limits by his parents and his strict-but-pretty teacher (Erika Mabuchi).

Its feature attraction is the "wolf girl," a human girl raised in the wilds of Hokkaido by wolves who, as the show barker (Tomorowo Taguchi) insists so hypnotically, is one of the wonders of the age.

Led by the head bully, the lout Koichi (Daigo Araki), the class mocks Hideko as the wolf girl, though her only job outside class is delivering newspapers to support her poverty-stricken mother and two younger siblings. Outraged by this and other insults, Rumiko vows revenge on Koichi and his crew, with Akira and Hideko as her allies (or rather foot soldiers).

Meanwhile, on the home front, Akira's perky young mother (Nene Otsuka) starts a new part-time job as a knitting instructor, while his workaholic journalist father (Go Riju) looks on disapprovingly. An argument overheard between these two convinces Akira that they are about to divorce -- the biggest horror of all.

The revenge plot leads to unintended consequences until all is finally revealed, just as we knew it would be. There are no real surprises, but no disappointments either. Rumiko, Akira and Hideko become fleshed out, internally consistent characters, not mugging plot devices. Also, despite its often-seen ending, the film earns its pathos because it refuses to oversell its big moments (though it has fun enough with its lighter ones).

Director Fukagawa, winner of the Pia Film Festival award for two straight years, as well as numerous other prizes for his nonfeature work, may not know the film's period personally -- he was born in 1976 -- but he cleanly, crisply evokes its air of predigital freedom.

Of his three young stars, Mao Ohno is the stand-out -- charming, confident and mature beyond her years, but never the preening child star. By contrast, Tatsuya Suzuki's Akira is a kid of the old, uncool school, whose every emotion is as readable as the comics he sleeps with. I like to think of myself as tougher and more wised-up at his age, but then, unlike him, I never went inside that tent.

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