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Friday, Feb. 20, 2009
Old genre gets new twist
"Halfway" ("Harufuwei") has one of those katakana titles that is supposed to sound vaguely exotic and mysterious to its intended audience — Japanese of about the same age as its teenage protagonists — but may strike native speakers as prosaic, even boring.
The most obvious interpretation: The film's two young lovers, both seniors at a high school in Hokkaido, are halfway to adulthood. What else could it mean?
Written and directed by Eriko Kitagawa, a veteran TV-drama scriptwriter with a long string of hits (some with katakana titles such as "Long Vacation," ["Rongu Bakeshon"], , "Beautiful Life," ["Byutifuru Raifu — Futari de ita Hibi,"]  and "Orange Days" [Orenji Deizu] ), the film is halfway in another sense: Coproducer Shunji Iwai not only initiated the film but also was its co-editor together with Kitagawa. Iwai, whose films as a director include such acclaimed seishun eiga (youth films) as "Hana and Alice" ("Hana to Arisu") (2004) and All About Lily Chou Chou, ("Ririi Shushu no Subete") (2001), has had a clear impact on its style, from its hand-held camera work to its jumpy editing. As well, Iwai worked with the film's cinematographer, Shinichi Tsunoda, on his 2006 documentary on director Kon Ichikawa.
So is "Halfway" an Iwai film by proxy? Not really. Despite the thematic similarities with Iwai's own tales about youthful miscommunication with unintended romantic consequences, some of them tragic, Kitagawa's directorial debut is audaciously and lyrically naturalistic in its treatment, in contrast to Iwai's strongly metaphoric or outright fantastical takes. Its story, in fact, borders on the banal, though the emotions it stirs feel anything but ordinary to its protagonists, as well as to this reviewer.
Not that I ever agonized like the film's hero about leaving a small town — I was only too happy to put my own Ohio home behind me — but "Halfway" delicately captures what most seishun eiga baldly proclaim about young love faced with a big change, from the fleeting ecstasies to the pangs of jealousy, loneliness and regret that seem as though they will never end, but do.
In outline, the story sounds like something out of a girls' comic: Tiny-but -fiery Hiro (Kii Kitano) has a huge crush on Shu (Masaki Okada), a school basketball star with fashion-model looks. After passing out from the excitement of watching him in action on the court, she is in the school nurse's room, babbling about the wonderfulness of Shu to her friend Meme (Riisa Naka), when Shu himself comes in to be treated for a minor injury and overhears her.
Instead of collapsing in a fit of laughter, he later asks Hiro to be friends with him — a request that sends her pedaling furiously away from him on her bike, her face plastered with a sappy grin she doesn't want him to see. Soon their friendship blossoms into something platonically more, and Hiro is in heaven.
But when Hiro hears from a male classmate that Shu wants to go to Waseda University, a top-rated private college in Tokyo, leaving her behind in Hokkaido, she feels used and betrayed. She confronts him, nearly strangling him with his own scarf, but can't give him up, while Shu feels guilty, if not quite repentant. When he brings his love troubles to a young teacher (Narimiya Hiroki) he respects, the teacher tells him that "life is long," implying that Shu should be thinking more about his own future than his current romance. But Shu replies that "now is important." In other words, goodbye Waseda . . . maybe.
This situation is a genre war horse, and not only in Japan (one U.S. example is "American Graffiti"), but Kitagawa's treatment of it is bracingly fresh. Instead of loading up her screenplay with the usual fight, separation and heart-to-heart- talk-on-the-school-rooftop cliches, she creates scenes that look and sound spontaneous and unstructured, despite the nuggets of brightly polished dialogue that are salted in the script to illuminate character or advance the story.
Also, she has done to perfection what script-writing books constantly preach but too few filmmakers actually practice: Write characters that play up their actors' natural strengths (that is, that bring out their most attractive on-screen selves whatever their off-screen selves may be like).
One example is Osawa, who plays Hiro's calligraphy teacher and confidante. Often cast as noble, self-sacrificing sorts in big-budget romantic dramas and thrillers but coming across as smarmy and self-satisfied, Osawa takes an opposite tack as the teacher. He's a ponytailed boho type who naps in the calligraphy room on school time but is also articulate, unpretentious and well tuned to the sometimes static-filled brain waves of teenage girls. Osawa's performance is a like a dropping of the mask.
The film's most dynamic presence, though, is that of Kitano as Hiro. A model and TV-drama actress since her early teens, Kitano made her screen breakthrough in 2007 as the star of Takashi Komatsu's drama "Dinner Table of Happiness" ("Kofuku na Shokutaku"). In "Halfway," she is a natural if unstable energy source, giddy with delight one moment, seething with anger the next, but always totally herself.
Instead of trying to force Kitano into the mold of the typical seishun-drama heroine — cute and perky, but tender- hearted to a fault — Kitagawa has unleashed her not just physically (Kitano spends much of the film zipping about town on a bike or zooming through the school halls), but psychologically, allowing her true grit to shine through while letting her grab the spotlight from her dishy but passive costar.
Hiro, she so vividly shows us, is not just mooning for a soon-to-be-lost love but determined to be valued for what she is worth. There's nothing halfway about her pride.
The Japan Times film critic Mark Schilling will talk about his new book "No Border, No Limits," about Nikkatsu action cinema, at Good Day Books in Ebisu, Tokyo, from 6:30 p.m. on Feb. 22. For more information, see www.gooddaybooks.com