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Friday, Aug. 25, 2006

Japan's first 'swimming movie'

Since her star-making role as the dying heroine in "Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out for Love in the Center of the World)," Masami Nagasawa has become the teen queen of Japanese films and TV dramas.

Rough Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
Masami Nagasawa (right) and Mokomichi Hayami in "Rough" (c)2006 "ROUGH" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Kentaro Otani
Running time: 106 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens Aug. 26, 2006
[See Japan Times movie listing]

What sets her apart, as shown in Isshin Inudo's baseball drama "Touch" and Kentaro Otani's new swimming drama "Rough," is something common enough in real life, but rather rare in teen idols: a gangly, muzzy, girl-becoming-woman quality. Most idols strive for a distinct, readily classifiable image, be it lovable ditz or perky saint -- they are a finished product. Nagasawa is more of a work in progress.

With each film, she loses more of this quality, but it's still there in "Rough" and perfectly suits her character -- a girl who wants it all, but is not sure what she wants.

Nagasawa has been lucky, working with quality directors, and in Otani, who made his box-office breakthrough last year with the female buddy movie "Nana," she has hit the jackpot again.

Working with scriptwriter Arisa Kaneko, from a hit 1980s manga by Mitsuru Adachi, Otani has made what is being billed as Japan's "first real swimming movie," which makes "Rough" sound somehow geeky, as though it might give you pointers on your crawl stroke.

Instead, like "Nana" and Otani's indie hits "Avec Mon Mari" and "Travail," it is about the romantic troubles of people who do not quite fit the usual romantic drama stereotypes (ditz, saint), but instead have the normal mix of weaknesses and strengths, revealed in a carefully structured story.

"Rough," however, begins badly, with mugging, over-the-top gags, including on-screen captions for puns. Then, just as I am resigning myself to two mildly excruciating hours, the film rights itself and became a straight-ahead drama, with jokey interludes, which traveled the usual genre arc toward the triumph of true love, but with unusually interesting insights into the characters of its two principals.

Nagasawa plays Ami Ninomiya, a high-school high diver whose parents run a wagashi (Japanese sweets) shop. Encountering the tall, handsome Keisuke Yamato (Mokomichi Hayami), a star swimmer on the school team, she calls him a "murderer." What gives?

The story behind her odd enmity is complicated -- enough to say that Keisuke is the son of wagashi shop owners who were the bitter rivals of Ami's folks.

She also has a hard-to-suss relationship with Hiroki Nakanishi (Riki Abe), an older guy who holds the Japan record for the freestyle -- and is Keisuke's most formidable competitor.

In other words, these two have nothing in common. But this being yet another take on "Romeo and Juliet" -- and Ami and Keisuke being the two principals (no other wagashi shop heirs being in sight), we know they will somehow connect.

The film, however, focuses less on the Shakespearean drama of family loyalty versus young love, and more on Ami and Keisuke's glaring character flaws.

Keisuke prides himself on his even, easy-going temperament, but as his gasshuku (summer practice session) roommate Ogata (Takuya Ishida) accurately observes, he is in fact a wimp afraid to go all out for what he really cares about. (Ogata, a diver on the 10-meter platform, needs desire and focus to simply survive.)

Meanwhile, Ami is torn between Keisuke, who wins her heart for a deed of selfless valor, and Hiroki, who has long been her friend, protector, and something more. (Preferring to leave their exact relationship a mystery, she calls him "brother" [onisan] in front of all and sundry.) But the petite, fiery Yui (Kaori Koyanagi), who is Ami's fellow diver -- and rival for Keisuke's affections, notes that Ami, seemingly sweet and guileless, is really stringing both boys along, because she wants to feed her own ego and is afraid to look into her own heart. In other words, another wimp -- and worse.

These flaws are more than a dash of spice in the film's romantic stew -- they loom larger, as symptoms of a generational malaise. Though gifted and advantaged in many ways (beginning with their good looks and long legs), Ami and Keisuke, like many of their contemporaries, lack direction and passion. Instead, they are drifting like jellyfish through life -- a stance the averagely talented but totally dedicated Yui and Hiroki resent. (In a previous era, Yui and Hiroki would have been the principals, Ami and Keisuke the weak-reed second leads.)

At the same time -- and here also is where "Rough" differs from many seishun eiga ("youth films"), these two jellyfish do not suddenly grow spines when presented with life-changing choices. Instead, they evolve by dealing with everyday (and not so everyday) randomness. To use the film's own metaphor, as explained by the gasshuku dorm's wise lady caretaker (Eriko Watanabe), they are like rough sketches, still not finished by life's pencil.

To properly show this evolution, Nagasawa and Hayami have to create characters, not just be their teen star selves. Both acquit themselves well enough, especially TV drama heartthrob Hayami, who manages the difficult trick of being both likable and contemptible.

He also swims a mean crawl, but his swim meets are cut so quickly I have no idea how he does it. Enough with the "real swimming movies" -- and back to the instructional videos.

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