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Friday, Oct. 27, 2006
Swimming in tears, and then a trippy dip
The Japanese film industry is churning out weepy romantic dramas, mostly with the classic (for Japan) plot of boy meets girl, boy loses girl (to tragic death, usually), but that particular bubble may burst soon. There are simply too many tearjerkers in the theaters and too few tearjerkees in the seats.
One variation on the "pure love" (jun'ai) genre that shows promise -- or at least is currently selling tickets -- is sibling love, as evidenced by the hit "Nada Soso," (English title: "Nada Sou Sou -- Tears for You.") a film inspired by a hit song of the same title.
Produced by the TBS network and directed by Hiroyasu Doi, who also helmed the 2004 TBS hankie-wringer "Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu (Be With You)," "Nada Soso" is upfront about its intentions right from the title (which translates roughly as "Swimming in Tears") and the poster of the two stars, Satoshi Tsumabuki and Masami Nagasawa, in moist-eyed closeup, as though they have just had a good, heart-cleansing sob.
The film itself is hardly more subtle. Though set in present-day Okinawa, which in the popular imagination has become an easy-going, fun-loving local version of Hawaii, "Nada Soso" has the feel of a more hardscrabble, pure-spirited time and place, when struggle, sacrifice and premature death for the virtuous on-screen heroes were as common as chopsticks.
This, however, is not your mother's (or grandmother's) sob story. Instead, it starts off at a tear (not with a tear), as delivery boy Yotaro (Tsumabuki) zips around the Naha open-air market, with a bright word and a big grin for everyone. This bundle of energy, we learn, has an ambition to run a bar of his own, thus the endless work to raise the required cash. He also has a responsibility -- his younger sister Kaoru, who is now 16 and about to enter a local high school. Yotaro's mother (Kyoko Koizumi) and Kaoru's jazz-musician father met and married when Yotaro was 8 and Kaoru was just a tot. Step-dad soon wandered off, mom died and the kids were raised by Yotaro's grandmother on a small island near Okinawa.
When Kaoru arrives in Naha, Yotaro is overjoyed and installs her in his tiny ramshackle house with a fabulous view of the town and sea. At first, all is bliss, since the bubbly Kaoru is as glad to see Yotaro as he is her. They are true siblings of the heart, if not DNA. But Kaoru also has a mind of her own and is uncomfortable with Yotaro's unceasing sacrifices. Can't he understand she's no longer a child who needs constant looking after? At the same time, she has mixed feelings about Yotaro's posh girlfriend, Keiko (Kumiko Aso), whose father is a successful doctor and wants his daughter to follow in his footsteps, preferably minus her working class boyfriend.
Enough to say that disaster strikes (and strikes and strikes), paradise is lost and the three principals are pulled heart-wrenchingly apart. The TV-trained Doi ratchets up everyone's performances, especially Tsumabuki's and Nagasawa's -- with Nagasawa so dribble-at-the-mouth hyper as Kaoru that it seems like she might be, if not simple, off her Ritalin. After the first half hour, the emotional gears shift down, as both Tsumabuki and Nagasawa turn on the faucets full blast. (Both pinch their nose when the waterworks start -- a childhood habit -- presumably to hold the mucus in place.) Meanwhile, any impure thoughts about what those tears might really mean are downed out by the caterwauling, as the plot takes melodramatic turns straight from the silents. I half expected poor Kaoru to be swept away by the climatic howling typhoon, like Lillian Gish battling through the snow drifts in "Way Down East." And yes, I was sniffling as I walked out of the theater.
More fantastic -- and less drippy -- is "Ichiban Kirei na Mizu (The Most Beautiful Water)," the debut feature by music-clip whiz Hiroshi Usui, based on a cult, hit comic of the same title. The story is a variation on the Tom Hanks classic "Big," but instead of a boy finding himself in a man's body, a sick girl falls asleep one day and does not wake up again for 11 years. In the meantime, her baby sister, Natsumi (Rio Kanno), grows up to become a very studious and serious 12-year-old, studying hard at her summer juku (cram school).
When her aunt, a free-spirited photographer (Karie Kahimi), goes missing in South America, her mildly scatter-brained mother (Kaho Minami) and father (Tetsuji Tanaka) go looking for her, leaving the girl, Natsumi, to look after her sleeping sibling, Ai (Rosa Kato). Yes, this is a clear case of child neglect, but Natsumi is such a no-nonsense, responsible type that it seems almost understandable. Soon after Mom and Dad leave, she notices that Ai, incredibly, is up and about, with the body of a woman, but the mind of an 8-year-old.
In other words, Ai would rather play dress up, sit on the swing and make a spectacle of herself at a family restaurant than meditate on her strange condition -- and what she might have missed. All she knows is that she doesn't want to go to sleep again and that her time awake might be short. She also thinks her little sister has lessons to learn about being a kid, who explores the world instead of merely enduring it.
Ai has a secret place she wants to show her -- an underground grotto where the water is beautiful, if scary. Like "Big," "Ichiban Kirei na Mizu" is an acting showcase for its star -- and Rosa Kato does an 8-going-on-20-year-old to perfection. Given that she is still in the idol stage of her career, which means playing cute is still part of the job requirement, she doesn't have such a leap to make to take herself to another level.
Still, she has good, giggly fun with the role, while conveying its mysterious "Sleeping Beauty" side. Rio Kanno also excels as Natsumi, who secretly wants off her self-imposed leash.
"Ichiban" has a conventional-enough look through its first hour, though the editing rhythms are a shade eccentric, as though to nudge us out of our "just another family drama" expectations. When Ai and Natsumi finally find and enter the "beautiful water" of the title, however, the film enters another, visionary state, with the sisters shot as, not ordinary girls splashing about, but nymphs playing in a watery eternity, with no thought beyond the liquid joy of the moment. The ending has the rightness -- and sadness -- of a fable. It doesn't moralize about the fleeting preciousness of life, but it does charmingly illustrate it. It didn't jerk my tear, but it earned it.