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Friday, Feb. 17, 2006

Girls make their mark


Should women directors make films that are identifiably, even explicitly, female -- or should they invade traditional male preserves in gender neutral ways? Make action, horror and gross-out comedies for teenage boys? My own feeling is they should make whatever they want to make. My own observation, however, is that, in Japan at least, more are taking the former path than the latter.

News photo
Maiko Yamada in "`Korogare! Tamako"

Is this ghettoization? Imposed from within or without? Maybe, but the local "ghetto" of female-generated/targeted pop culture has a lot of energy and power, culturally and economically. The "Nana" phenomenon -- Ai Yazawa's best-selling comic and Kentaro Otani's megahit movie about two girlfriends who are at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, one super-punk, the other super-fem -- is one indication that this "ghetto" is prospering nicely, thank you, while changing the largely male-defined meaning of "mainstream."

'Tenshi'

Other, somewhat different, signs can be seen in three recent films, two of which are still playing. Just-ended is "Tenshi (Angel)," Mayumi Miyasaka's film, based on Erika Sakurazawa's eponymous shojo manga (girls' comic), about a sweetly ditzy angel (Kyoko Fukada) who helps troubled Tokyoites get their priorities straight and find true love, all without uttering a word. Fukada, a former idol who proved herself a gifted comedian in the hit female-buddy movie "Shimotsuma Monogatari (Kamikaze Girls)," is all white silk, feathery wings and fluttering ribbons as the angel, but tosses down gin and tonics as though they were lemonade. The story is mostly standard-issue romantic drama, but Fukada's character is an amusingly off-kilter example of contemporary girl power, supernatural division.

'Sannen Migomoru'

Still another, more surreal, definition is provided by Miako Tadano's "Sannen Migomoru (Three Year Delivery)," based on Tadano's own novel. The heroine, Fuyuko (Tomoko Nakajima), begins the film nine months pregnant, but doesn't deliver until her third year, to the bafflement of all around her. Fuyuko, however, is in bliss about her unusual state, despite her size -- we're talking medicine ball under the dress.

The intent, I suppose, is to celebrate the beginning of life in all its sweet beauty and strangeness -- but I had to wonder who in the real world (or in her right mind) would enjoy being in her ninth month for three everlasting years. That said, "Sannen Migomoru" exudes the gentle-spirited conviction that Fuyuko is, not a freak, but a sort of earth goddess. Confronted with her mysteries, the men around her (and this one in the audience) can only gape with awe.

'Korogare! Tamako'

Kaze Shindo's "Korogare! Tamako (Tumble Down! Tamako)" also takes leave of reality, but in a way less formulaic than "Tenshi," less formidably feminine than "Sannen Migomoru." It's sensibility is even more shojo manga-esque that the other two, though it is based on an original script by Ginko Shindo, the director's script- and children's-book-writing aunt.

Shindo, who debuted in 2000 with "Love/Juice," has more freedom than the typical manga adapter because she does not have to wrestle stories and images from another medium into cinematic form. Instead she and her collaborators, including cameraman Yasushi Sasakibara and art director Katsumi Nakazawa, have created a frilly, fantastic, completely imagined world for their lovably wacky heroine, from her diet to her style sense. The story is as simple as a fairy tale, but has recognizably adult complications and a useful message: We all drop into holes on occasion, but with effort, luck and a push or two from behind we can usually climb out.

Tamako (Maiko Yamada) was traumatized as a girl when her artist father (Naoto Takenaka) left her hairdresser mother (Kayoko Kishimoto). Now 24, she lives at home with her flighty mom and her perpetually grinning teenage brother, buys her favorite sweet bread from a kindly old baker (Mickey Curtis) and his wife at a nearby shop and visits her free-spirited-but-unreliable dad at his auto-repairshop-cum-atelier. As she makes her daily round, within a strictly defined 500-meter radius, she wears a steel helmet designed by Dad, which gives her a well-deserved reputation for eccentricity. This woman obviously needs therapy.

Then her little world begins to fall apart. The first sign of the impeding collapse comes from a strange little boy who urges her to "be careful," which is somewhat like urging the pope to "be good." But Tamako manages to fall into a deep hole that has mysteriously opened in the middle of the street. When she gets out, she discovers that Mom has fallen madly in love with a plump young Buddhist priest (Yoshiaki Yoza). Then the old baker gets sick and closes up his shop, Dad decides to try his luck on the New York art scene, Brother gets a job as a bus guide -- and her cat runs away.

Change, hateful change, and there's not a thing she can do about it -- except cross the bridge that divides her tiny neighborhood from the bigger world beyond, a world that just might have the sweet bread she craves. Strapping on her helmet, she girds herself for the ultimate challenge.

Shindo has stylized this story somewhat the same way Jean-Pierre Jeunet did "Amelie." The sets, -- from Tamako's bedroom to Mom's beauty parlor -- are gaudier, brighter and busier than life, as is Tamako's tatty, multilayered look, which might be described, given her preference in pets, as Early Cat Lady. The actors are also all over-the-top, from Maiko Yamada's Tamako, with her wide-eyed look of 8-going-on-24, to Yutaka Matsushige' dour younger baker, who takes Tamako under his leathery wing and would sooner break a leg than crack a smile.

But I never wanted the film to be more realistic or the characters to be more dull/normal. I liked Tamako and her world just the way it was -- a vision of a peaceful, mildly mad kingdom that welcomes all sorts of misfits, even girls with steel head gear. "Korogare! Tamako" comes up smiling.



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