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Friday, May 8, 2009
'Yomei Ikkagetsu no Hanayome'
A weepy aimed straight at women
Films commonly target one sex more than the other. Akira Kurosawa made them mainly for men and Yasujiro Ozu, mainly for women, but today both directors are regarded as masters by critics of both sexes, targeting be damned.
Some films, however, practically tell one sex not to bother because they just won't get it. "Sex and the City" is one notorious recent example. Ryuichi Hiroki's "Yomei Ikkagetsu no Hanayome" ("April Bride"), which is about a young woman diagnosed with terminal breast cancer, would seem to be another film that all but bars guys from the theater.
Based on a true story, first told in a TV news segment and later retold in a two-hour TV documentary, "Yomei," gives the tear ducts of its lead actors thorough workouts, particularly those of Eita, who plays the devoted boyfriend/fiance of the afflicted heroine. Guys who accompany their significant other to this film — and realize that they are unfeeling brutes compared to this exemplar, may wish they had scheduled root-canal work instead.
Hiroki, however, is not another director of Japanese commercial hankie- wringers, who equates bathos on the screen with emotions in the seats. Instead, he is a maker of internationally acclaimed films, such as "Vibrator" (2003) and "Yawarakai Seikatsu" ("It's Only Talk"; 2006), that reveal the inner feelings, sexual and otherwise, of his nonconformist and often neurotic heroines. He makes them look not only real but appealing, even in their darker moments. He is clearly interested in them as people and as women.
Hiroki makes no exception for his heroine in "Yomei," Chie Nagashima (Nana Eikura), who begins the film as an endearingly bumbling, radiantly beautiful "event companion" working at a trade show. There she cutely meets Taro (Eita), a pleasant, handsome young salaryman — and soon they are a happy couple, bicycling exuberantly through the streets of Tokyo in a scene that Hiroki films in long traveling shots that perfectly capture their idyllic mood, without the usual soft-focus overselling.
The revelation that Chie has from breast cancer and that her mother died young from the same disease comes early on but after Taro has decided that he is serious about her. When Chie tells him she has to undergo a mastectomy and wants to break off their relationship, he indignantly refuses. Soon after, she disappears.
A distraught Taro tries to learn her whereabouts from her taciturn shamisen-teaching father (Akira Emoto), but the old man, wanting to respect his daughter's privacy, is reluctant to tell him. The couple reunite, in unusual, if ideal, circumstances, and when Taro vows to remain constant, she starts to believe him.
Chie's disease, however, is relentless. When the doctor tells her father, aunt Kayoko (Satomi Tezuka) and Taro that she has only a month to live, they try to keep the news from her. Chie figures out the truth and becomes determined to make her remaining time count.
The scenes of her battle against illness and her triumph when she and Taro hold a wedding in defiance of her mutating cells, are the film's inspirational dramatic heart. Where a typical Japanese medical melodrama would shamelessly jerk tears with hyped suffering and nobility, "Yomei" shows us the natural course of the disease and the harsh emotional as well as physical costs it extracts.
Though more understated than the genre norm, the scenes of Chie's decline are still wrenching to watch, particularly since Hiroki presents her not as a flawless role model but as a young woman with normal fears and vulnerabilities, and extraordinary awareness and resolve. Also, everyone around her, from the passionate Taro to her seemingly stoic father, responds to her with naturalistsic emotions, not cliched agonizing. But, to be honest, I could have done with fewer watery breakdowns (though I had one myself).
Her wedding is not the pathetic fulfillment of a terminal patient's last wish, but an affirmation of the human spirit that makes the New Age exhortation to "live in the moment," a brightly glowing reality. The real-life Chie and those who loved and supported her could not ask for a better tribute. Boosted by Chie's on-screen advocacy of early diagnosis and treatment, it will also, I am sure, save lives.
Now Hiroki can go back to making movies about sexy depressives with his head held high.