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Friday, Aug. 4, 2006
Troubled dreams of teens
Watching Richard Linklater's 1993 teen comedy "Dazed and Confused" for the first time recently, I felt, first, that his portrayal of high-school life in a Texas town, circa 1976, was spot on, and second, that it was alien to the Japanese teen experience, as depicted in countless seishun eiga ("youth movies"), including "Koi Suru Nichiyobi (Love on Sunday)" and "Hachimitsu to Clover (Honey and Clover)."
Linklater's heroes, beginning with the drawling smoothy played by Matthew McConaughey, are mostly comfortable with the opposite sex, from flirting to friendship. By contrast, the teens of both the arty "Koi" and mainstream "Hachimitsu" are struggling with feelings they cannot easily express -- and that may not be reciprocated in any case.
Kata omoi ("unrequited love") is not an only-in-Japan phenomenon, but it is a major plot driver in Japanese teen films. It can also be, I realized after seeing all three of the above films in quick succession, a cross-cultural irritant (though I was once well acquainted with its agonies). Why can't these kids just get on with it -- or get over it?
Less so with "Koi," a film spun off from a drama series on the BS-i channel. Director Ryuichi Hiroki does what he did so well in such films as "Vibrator" and "Yawarakai Seikatsu (It's Only Talk)" -- explore the inner worlds of his smart, stubborn, emotionally troubled heroine with honesty, sympathy, and none of the melodramatics so common to the genre.
The story is typical seishun eiga, however. Akira (Takami Mizuhashi) is about to leave the provincial town where she grew up for the big city, where her family is moving. On her last day, she ends up hanging out with three classmates at a sobetsukai ("going away party").
One, the easy-going Nao (Tatsuya Wakaba), is a friend for whom Akira has long had more than friendly feelings. Another, Tamaki (Yuria Haga), is a girl Nao is pursuing -- and Akira consequently can't stand. Still another is the earnest Gaku (Kazu-nori Sasaki), who likes Akira, but is doomed to disappointment.
Akira's struggle to win (or at least distract) Nao from her rival may seem futile, since she is leaving the next morning, probably never to return, but the teenage heart has its reasons -- and Akira's go deeper than usual. This quartet ends up spending the night in the school -- the scene of so many hopes and traumas -- and Akira comes up with an unusual, if characteristic, twist on the truth-or-dare games teens often play.
Hiroki films this momentous day and night like a documentary maker with a keen eye for the moment, capturing flickering emotions with a feeling of spontaneity and serendipity. As Akira, Mizuhashi may shade toward the sullen, but she also brings an endearing purity and grit to her portrayal of a girl who will not be denied
"Hachimitsu to Clover" is a more commercial take on the kata omoi theme, meaning that everything is cuter, quirkier and more caffeinated than life. Based on Chika Umino's best-selling shojo manga (girls' comic), it focuses on art-college students in present-day Japan, but exists in a universe of its own, beyond a specific period or even culture.
This is very manga-esque, but also strange, especially when nonartist actors make random splotches on a canvas -- and we are expected to regard the result as a masterpiece (though some of the finished pieces, touched up by professionals, are not badly done). Also, the film's idea of art is very mid-20th century -- all splashed paint and hacked wood. No one has apparently heard of installations, videos, or any of the other myriad nontraditional ways artists work today.
Having snobbishly said that, there is also something appealing about setting a teen film in the art world, instead of yet another dreary beach or Shibuya street. Also, the five principals all have dreams, not just career goals -- at least in the beginning.
They are Takemoto (Sho Sakurai), a decent sort with a bright smile and stumbling tongue, Hagumi (Yu Aoi), an enigmatic "girl prodigy" Takemoto is head over heels for, and Morita (Yusuke I-seya), a Picasso-esque genius who attracts Hagumi, but is only in love with himself. There is also Mayama (Ryo Kase), a nerdy architecture student hopelessly infatuated with his female boss (Naomi Nishida) at the company where he is interning and Ayumi (Megumi Seki), a tall, big-eyed ceramics major who is hopelessly infatuated with Mayama.
This quintet is attractive enough, if scruffier than the usual seishun eiga heroes. But as directed by Masahiro Takada, a CM whiz making his feature debut, their various love troubles are not just over-familiar, but dragged out to infinity. Mayama and Ayumi, in particular, spend scene after repetitive scene in the helplessly longing mode, even though it's screamingly obvious they are two peas from the same geeky pod.
They are, however, only a background drone to the main story, involving the triangle of Takemoto, Morita and Hagumi. It turns less on the rivalry between the two men -- Takemoto is too nice and Morita too self-absorbed for real fireworks -- than Hagumi's shock at Takemoto's sell-out to the gods of greed and hype (as offensively embodied by twin gallery owners who are leathery/campy queer cartoons).
This story may be more-or-less faithful to the manga, but Takada has little idea how to shape it, beyond falling back on seishun eiga cliches. There is an idyll at the beach, with the usual frolicking -- and postfrolic reminiscing and regretting. There is a life-changing fire, with the usual soulful looks into the purifying flames. Watching it, I found myself working up a powerful thirst -- for Linklater's Texas kegger.