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Friday, Jan. 6, 2006

Lots of pain on road to fame

Aishite yo

Rating: * * 1/2 (out of 5)
Director: Yoshihiro Fukuoka
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: Japanese
Currently showing
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Japanese kids, we are often told, lead frazzled lives. True enough for many, though there is normal frazzled -- the volleyball club/cram school/piano practice routine that most kids survive intact -- and then there is young tarento ("talent") frazzled, which, if Yoshiho Fukuoka's film "Aishite yo (Love Me)" is to be believed, is a living hell, with the only way out being a fatal leap from a high place.

News photo
Naomi Nishida and Kenji Shio in "Aishite yo"

This seems to go against much of what we see on Japanese TV, where crowds of young aidoru ("idols") and tarento mug, crack wise and enthuse when presented with a bowl of ramen. How hellacious is that?

The view from the bottom, however, is different. For 10-year-old Keiji (Kenji Shio) and his ferociously ambitious mother (Naomi Nishida), every spare minute is filled with auditions, fashion shoots and lessons -- not just the usual piano, but dancing and even trampoline.

An ordinary boy with an ordinary rebellious streak, Keiji pushes back against his stage-door mom, but not too hard. With his slacker of a father long gone, she is the only family he has. Also, he knows no other life, so he feels obliged to slog along the long, uncertain road to showbiz fame and fortune -- which maybe one out of a thousand negotiate successfully.

At a big audition for a sportswear line, Keiji encounters Takashi, a hulking teenage Adonis who grabs away clothes he was eyeing. He also meets Akira (Nobuhiro Ima-yama), a fast-talking, fun-loving, trouble-making older boy who becomes a needed, if unreliable, ally. Keiji ends up with a trampled jacket, but adopts a new, more defiant attitude that impresses one of the designers (Sawa Suzuki), despite the footprints on her products. Is Keiji on his way?

Hewing to realism instead of feel-good formula, Fukuoka and script writer Hiroshi Hashimoto answer in the negative, so much so that the film's title starts to sound bitterly ironic.

No one, it seems, really loves Keiji. His mother may, in her own distracted way, but she is the one putting the intolerable pressure on him. She is also dating a new man, the smiling, friendly Sawaki (Shunsuke Matsuoko), whom Keiji cannot abide. No, Mom is finally the Enemy.

Meanwhile, the boys at school beat him up and take his lunch money. The teachers? Nowhere in sight. Akira pals around with him at an abandoned train station, but is too absorbed in his own career and ego to more than casually connect. The only one who takes a sincere, continuing interest in him is the ghost of a girl, another aspiring idoru, who leaped to her death from a roof -- and silently asks Keiji to join her. The central issue of the film becomes, not Keiji's eventual triumph, but whether he will kill himself before Mom wakes up and smells the coffee.

Playing Keiji, newcomer Shio is sullen enough -- the poor kid seems to have been as unhappy during the shoot as Keiji was in his tarento career -- but I never believed for a moment that his character would do himself in. Shio may be talented (though Fukuoka gives him little chance to prove it), but he is also a normal-enough 10-year-old boy. In other words, one of the most life-affirming creatures on the planet.

To make us believe otherwise would require major plot surgery. The spooky, neo-Victorian approach Sofia Coppola adopted for "The Virgin Suicides" would probably not work: Boys do not do the languorous, mysteriously smiling, half-in-love-with-easeful-death thing very well as a rule.

More likely is the typical Hollywood upbeat, battle-back-from-the-bottom approach, with Keiji snagging a big modeling contract in the last reel. But I wouldn't like to see that movie either.

Potentially more interesting and certainly less-cliched would be a comic take on the foibles and idiocies of the idoru game. Fukuoka has the perfect actress for such a comedy in Naomi Nishida ("Himitsu no Hanazono," "Out"), Japan's marvelously ditzy answer to Lisa Kudrow. In "Aishite yo," however, she is asked to play mom-as-monster, if one more clueless than cruel, and is thus mostly wasted. Nishida is capable of many things, but this character is not one of them.

Almost any approach, however, would be better than the one Fukuoka has adopted -- lugubrious drama about the deadly perils of show business. Such a drama can be made well (save for the "lugubrious" part), but isn't 10 a bit young for the hero? When Judy Garland filmed "A Star Is Born" -- with the greatest crash-and-burn showbiz story of all -- she was far, far over the prepubescent rainbow.

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