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Friday, Aug. 15, 2008
Taking a long look back on life
Nostalgia keeps changing. The music, TV shows and junk food that leaves one generation misty-eyed are regarded by the next as quaint curiosities from a distant past, until they finally pass into that dead, hallowed realm known as history.
That mist often forms a couple decades or so after high-school graduation, when youth is definitely over, never to return. Not only old pop-culture detritus, but old relationships become precious, while the shared good times loom larger in the memory than the shared bad. We were miserable together — and wasn't it great!
Unless, of course, you are still unhappily married to your high-school idol, like Katsuyuki, the hero of Mikio Satake's directorial debut, "Dosokai (Class Reunion)," who is played by Satake himself (confusingly, under his real name, Takayuki Takuma).
Katsuyuki, known to one and all as Kattsu, is happily cheating with a young actress, Megumi (Megumi Sato), that he met in the course of his work as a film producer. His wife, the determinedly chipper Yuki (Hiromi Nagasaku), readily agrees to his request for a divorce — they have no children, which eases the process — and they go their separate ways.
Since all this occurs in the opening minutes of the film, Satake's first as a director/scriptwriter, we soon realize we are in for a long look back, as Kattsu reviews his marriage — and all that led up to it — while feeling the first stirrings of regret.
The scriptwriter of the hugely successful "Hana Yori Dango (Boys Over Flowers)" TV series and film, as well as the leader of a popular theater troupe and an in-demand actor, Satake is truly multitalented, though "Dosokai" makes it clear that, as a director, he is no groundbreaker. Instead, he amps up the acting in the familiar Japanese TV drama mode, with nearly everyone on screen striving furiously to be funny and lovable. That is, borderline hysteric and harmlessly eccentric.
This applies to not only Kattsu, much given to grimacing with everything from goofy embarrassment to presumably intense emotional pain, but his former high-school classmates back in his native Nagasaki, especially Bunta (Satoshi Nikaido), a former punk turned real-estate agent. Hearing the news of Kattsu's divorce, he erupts in a tea-flinging rage (dowsing two customers) and vows to pound some sense into his old pal.
Meanwhile, Yuki is comforted by another former classmate, nicknamed Hime — "Princess" in Japanese and played by Sawa Suzuki — who is an editor at a Tokyo magazine publisher. Though icy by comparison to the excitable, earthy types back home, Hime can't hide her shock when Yuki tells her the bad news after a physical exam: "I only have a few months left . . . "
In Japanese TV drama terms, this development can only mean one thing — Kattsu, the heel, will see the error of his ways and come crawling back to Yuki. Meanwhile, he spends much time reminiscing about his high-school days, when he was a shy budding filmmaker (Shu Kaneko) and Yuki (Anna Odaka) was the cute, perky girl of his dreams — who regarded him strictly as a pal. Then, 12 years later, he met her again at a class reunion and finally worked up the courage to ask her out. When she said yes, he couldn't believe his good luck, and when she accepted his knees-on-the-floor, shouting-to-the-rafters proposal of marriage in a crowded izakaya (Japanese style pub), he was delirious with joy (especially when all the customers applauded). What happened?
The film doesn't supply many answers, save for Kattsu's wandering eye, but it does offer some unexpected twists that are more like comic punch lines than genuine dramatic developments.
It also has Hiromi Nagasaku, the best comic actress working in Japan today (see her award-winning turn as a batty housewife in last year's "Funukedomo, Kanashimi no Ai o Misero" for conclusive proof), who refreshingly betrays expectations as the wronged wife. Instead of throwing crockery at her philandering hubby, she gives him her sunniest smile — and we immediately understand what this mope is throwing away. Instead of strenuously overacting like nearly everyone else around her, Nagasaku, if anything, underplays, knowing she can hold the screen with that mobile, ageless face that registers every shift of emotion with spontaneity and clarity.
Anna Odaka, who pays Yuki's younger self, has many of Nagasaku's good qualities, as well as a reasonably close physical resemblance.
If Satake were really the genius his publicists say he is, he would have done a rewrite — and put these two at the center of "Dosokai." He'd have had a stronger film — or at least a quieter one.