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Friday, Oct. 13, 2006

Something sweet worth waiting for

Hitoshi Yazaki was once an avatar of the 1990s Japanese New Wave. "Sangatsu no Lion (March Comes In Like a Lion,)" (1992), his lyrical, elliptical drama about incest, was championed by the likes of Asian film doyen Tony Rayns and screened at dozens of festivals around the world.

Strawberry Shortcakes Rating: (4 out of 5)
Star Star Star Star Star
From left: Chizuru Ikewaki, Noriko Nakagoshi, Yuko Nakamura and Toko Iwase in "Strawberry Shortcakes" (c)2006 STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKES PARTNERS

Director: Hitoshi Yazaki
Running time: 127 minutes
Language: Japanese
Now showing (Oct. 13, 2006)
[See Japan Times movie listing]

It made the West aware that something was happening in Japanese cinema beyond bloated bubble-era period dramas, while setting the pattern for dozens of Japanese indie films that followed with its plotless story about a flaky, if determined, young woman adrift in an urban wilderness, looking for pure love -- and finding it in her mentally disabled brother.

After this triumph, however, Yazaki dropped out of sight, reappearing briefly in 2000 with the little-seen "Hana o Tsumu Shojo to Mushi o Korosu Shojo (The Girl Who Picks Flowers and the Girl Who Kills Insects)." Now, 14 years after his breakthrough, he is back with "Strawberry Shortcakes," a romantic drama based on a popular manga, with a name cast headed by Chizuru Ikewaki, Yuko Nakamura, Ryo Kase and Masanobu Ando: In other words, a film that is more commercially-minded '00s than purist-indie '90s in subject, source and stars.

"Strawberry Shortcakes," however, is less a sell-out than a shading toward more digestible, if not always sweet, entertainment. Yazaki, however, is still basically Yazaki, defiantly indie in sensibility and style.

Compared with the local romantic melodramas that underline every emotion with big pink markers, "Strawberry Shortcakes" is a small marvel of compression, subtlety and realism. Instead of boldly proclaiming their feelings to the skies or their significant others, the four principals mostly mumble them to themselves -- or to God. That's a bit sad, but reflective of the isolated state of many singles in today's socially fragmented Tokyo. Yazaki may have been away a long time, but he's still in touch.

The film tells parallel stories about two sets of young women. The first we meet is Satoko (Ikewaki), who, after being cruelly dumped by her rocker boyfriend, is working as a receptionist at a deriheru (delivery health) -- meaning she answers the phone from customers wanting call girls. Back in her apartment, she swigs beer on the veranda swing and prays to a small, black stone that fell from the sky and is now her resident "god."

At work, Satoko becomes friends with Akiyo (Nakamura), who is older, quieter and more aggressive than the other girls. She is squirreling away her yen to buy a condo on the fifth floor -- so that, when she starts to go senile, she can jump out the window and kill herself quickly and efficiently. She is also sleeping in a coffin -- to keep her mind focused on her final exit. Her one escape from her death-worshipping present are her drinking sessions with Kikuchi (Ando), a former classmate who is also drifting and knows that beneath Akiyo's buddy-buddy exterior beats the heart of a woman madly in love. Unfortunately, he cannot reciprocate.

Also lonesome is Toko (Toko Iwase), an illustrator whose ex, she learns, is about to marry someone else. Meanwhile, she is sinking into a miasma of bitterness and bulimia, while working herself to a nub on a publisher's commission to "draw the face of God" for a book cover.

Her roommate is Chihiro (Noriko Nakagoshi), a sweet, chipper office lady who is into shopping, makeup, fortunetelling and her self-absorbed salaryman boyfriend Nagai (Kase), who treats her abysmally. In short, she and the boho Toko have zero in common. But Chihiro is not as brainless as she seems. Instead, she is another lonely soul, who desperately wants a normal married life and worships the boyfriend as her "god," the poor thing.

This may sound like a long, dreary wallow in feminine self-delusion and depression, but Yazaki's four heroines are all struggling toward self-awareness and their various versions of "the light." Also, they are all people in their own right, not directorial sock puppets, who, like many of us, are playing roles with the people they work with, live with and love. But when they are alone -- or have tired of the game, they let the mask slip.

The film is really less about the search for love than finding the courage to live in one's own skin without the usual neurotic or religious crutches, but with a like-minded soul or two.

Working from Kyoko Inukai's script, Yazaki depicts this journey more through the small incidents and rituals of everyday life than the standard drag-out-the-hankies scenes of the genre -- though he doesn't shy from the occasional big flareup or flakeout.

Even the humble stuff of the heroines' rooms expresses their personalities, and dreams. Nearly everything of Toko's has edges; nearly everything of Chihiro's has curves, right down to her heart-shaped alarm clock. Toko displays her art proudly on the walls, but hides her feelings. Chihiro puts her feelings on open display in her "private" diary (which Toko reads daily for amusement), while keeping her decorative urges under wraps (though the makeup bottles crowding her vanity case send a message of their own).

This is hardly a new strategy for adding color and depth, but Yazaki uses it with unusual thoroughness, to extraordinary effect. When the title treats finally show up, in the last scene, they pack more than the usual meaning because the film has been preparing for their appearance in dozens of ways, from scene one. Dig in, enjoy -- and let's hope we don't have to wait another 14 years for a second helping.

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