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Friday, Feb. 1, 2008
Starlet shines in retro psychodrama
Ever watch BS-i, the satellite channel owned and operated by the TBS network? I thought not. Or maybe you did, flipping through the 100 or so channels on J-COM, giving it only a glance. Too bad, because under producer Tamon Andrew Niwa, BS-i has become a lab for interesting experiments in TV and film production, as well as a notable success in star making.
Niwa's biggest discovery so far is Maki Horikita, who stars in his latest film "Tokyo Shonen (Tokyo Boy)." Best known for her appearances in the two "Always" films and hit TV dramas, with Niwa's backing she has become a BS-i staple, starting with the goofy 2003 series "Keitai Keiji Zenigata Mai (Cell Phone Detective Mai Zenigata)," and continuing with Ryuiichi Hiroki's "Koi Suru Nichiyobi — Watashi Koi Shita (Love on Sunday: I Fell in Love)" in 2007, in which she played a terminally ill girl who seeks out her first love.
This is not to say that Niwa single-handedly made Horikita a star, but she has done some of her best work for him. In "Koi Suru Nichiyobi" she may have played that cliche of all Japanese movie cliches — a dying teenager — but she brought a fervent honesty to the role that was all her own.
Horikita takes on an even more challenging role in "Tokyo Shonen," the debut feature of TBS director Shuichi Hirano, again produced by Niwa and backed by BS-i. Actually, it's more accurate to say "roles," since her character, traumatized by her mother's death and her father's abandonment, is suffering from a split personality.
Women impersonating guys is common enough in Japanese pop culture — it's a staple of the Takarazuka all-female theater troupe — but the usual emphasis is on the externals: macho posturing, flashing eyes and cool clothes.
Horikita's eyes certainly flash, but she is totally, spookily in character as the male half of the heroine's personality.
She did something similar in the TV series "Hanazakari no Kimitachi (You In Full Bloom)," playing a girl posing as a boy to get next to her favorite guy in an all-boys high school. In "Tokyo Shonen," however, the male personality is not a pose, but a psychological reality that has emerged from trauma and need.
The film is by no means perfect — its "cure" for the heroine's disorder glosses over what is usually a long, difficult process, but Horikita delivers another extraordinary performance. Yes, she still may be flogging candy on the tube, but she is also a fine actress.
She plays Minato, a girl who lives alone with her slightly senile grandmother (Reiko Kusamura) and chronicles her life, inner and outer, in long letters (not e-mail or instant messaging, but actual paper-and-pen letters) to Naito, a guy she hardly knows, but somehow trusts. Then, a customer at a convenience store where she works — the geeky but dishy Sho (Takuya Ishida) — becomes infatuated with her and, after some comic fumbling around, asks her for a date.
Both shy, serious types, Minato and Sho hit it off, share good times together — and open up to each other. Sho tells her about his troubled relationship with his physician father (Mitsuru Hirata), who wants him to take over the family clinic. He is cramming to enter an elite college, at his father's insistence, but his dream is to become a photographer — a dream Dad is determined to crush.
Minato faithfully reports the latest developments in this relationship to Naito, including the revelation that she is falling in love. Then, one day, she passes out — and when she wakes up, in her bed, she finds Sho strangely distant and cold. He even lies to avoid seeing her — and she suspects a jealous Naito as the cause.
Determined to get to the bottom of this mystery, she asks Naito to meet her at the mail box where she always mails her letters. He fails to show, so she goes to the address on his envelopes — an abandoned school.
Here is where the story shifts genre gears, from seishun (youth) drama to psychodrama. Hirano, who directed Horikita in the "Keitai Keiji" series, manages this transition smoothly, but soon throws the story into reverse and we see the relationship developing again, this time from Sho's point of view.
This narrative strategy — repeating the entire first act of the film, only with different camera setups — could have degenerated into an artificial, movie-killing gimmick, but Hirano skillfully uses it to not only shed new light on Minato's dilemma, but mount a defense of Sho's seemingly caddish behavior. He is, we see, a nice guy hopelessly in love, but understandably baffled by Minato's abrupt changes in personality. Of course, it's not only Minato he's dealing with.
Another hurdle for Hirano, not to mention Horikita, is the meeting between Minato and Naito (katakana for "night") at the school. Hirano films it with J-Horror atmospherics, including a cracked mirror and ghostly shadows, but his emphasis is on psychological drama, not surface shocks. Horikita draws a stark contrast between the sweet, but darkly troubled Minato and the intense, angrily protective Naito, while making clear the connection between the two.
Unexpectedly for a film with a hot young star, targeted at her equally young fan base, "Tokyo Shonen" is thoroughly retro, from the letters and mail box to the heroine's condition, which feels like a leftover from an age when gender crossing, voluntary or no, was viewed as scarily transgressive. But the inner life, dreams included, has a logic that ignores trends and eras. It's that logic that "Tokyo Shonen" gets so right.