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Friday, Dec. 18, 2009
Weep over this princely pile of slush
An anonymous poster on 2Channel — Japan's popular message-board site — once listed the elements that make for a successful Japanese melodrama as 1. Children 2. Animals 3. Poverty 4. Sickness, and 5. Death.
The poster may have been a cynic but I thought the list was spot on, especially after seeing Joji Matsuoka's "Snow Prince," a weeper that shamelessly pushes all of the above buttons and more, but left me surprisingly dry eyed. I say "surprisingly" because "Snow Prince" was scripted by Kundo Koyama, whose credits include the Oscar-winning "Okuribito" ("Departures," 2008).
"Okuribito" was brilliantly constructed, with an unusual premise (an out-of-work cellist finds his bliss preparing corpses for funerals) and a climax that left millions (including this reviewer) in tears. "Snow Prince," on the other hand, is an uninspired mashup of familiar genre elements. It's as though Koyama copied and pasted such foreign children's classics as "The Little Match Girl," "The Dog of Flanders" and "Oliver Twist," together with such hankie-wringing domestic fare as "Ie Nakiko" ("Sans Famille," 1995) into a plot generator and printed out the result.
There's hardly a spark of originality in the entire enterprise, unless you count the casting of Tadanobu Asano — the coolest Japanese actor of his generation — as a sad-but-wise circus clown. (It's as though Johnny Depp had played the lead in "Patch Adams," instead of Robin Williams.)
The primary setting is Japan's snow country in 1936, in a village where extremes of wealth and poverty exist side by side. Sota (Shintaro Morimoto), an orphan boy, aspires to be an artist, but lives with his kindly grandfather (Katsuo Nakamura) on the brink of destitution. Unable to afford the local school, he spends his days drawing, making charcoal with his grandfather, playing with his white Akita dog Chibi ("Little," which it is not), and having heart-to-hearts with Sayo (Marino Kuwajima), the pretty, vivacious daughter of a saintly mother (Reiko Dan) and a snooty rich-businessman father (Teruki Kagawa) who does not like her associating with the lower classes.
Since Sota and Sayo are soulmates, inseparable since early childhood, one possible development is a Romeo-and-Juliet romance and a happily-ever-after fade-out, but from the framing of the story, set in the present, we know that is not on the cards. As the film begins, an elderly Sayo (Keiko Kishi) receives a manuscript from a mysterious visitor, a middle-aged man who knows everything about her girlhood friendship with Sota (including things that, once he reveals his identity, we realize he could not have possibly known).
Unlike the scrappy orphan girl in "Ie Nakiko," who would do almost anything short of murder to scrape up money for her sick mother, Sota is a passive type who endures everything from the taunts of local schoolboys to the scorn of Sayo's father. He is not a wimp in the modern sense, but rather an obedient boy living according to his grandfather's advice to "never be angry at anyone." When a thief steals the money Sota made selling charcoal, his grandfather tells the disconsolate boy that "he needed it more than we do." This, I would argue, is not the way to raise an action hero.
The film's central incident is the arrival in the village of a traveling circus. Sota, of course, does not have the money for a ticket so he and Sayo end up sneaking in. There they witness marvels, including a clown (Asano) with a strange charisma. Sota becomes acquainted with him — and thinks of him as a "god" who understands not only his talent but his heart. Could he be something more?
The decision to make Sota a saint in training rather than a typical boy — or an atypical fighter — is one big reason for the film's deadness. Playing the lead, Morimoto is sweet, gentle and blank-faced, like a porcelain shepherd boy with his dog. It's hard to think of him growing and changing — only breaking.
Another is the narrative frame, which diminishes the urgency of the central story by recounting it as an incident 70 nostalgic years in the past. Worst of all, however, is the ending, which feels arbitrary and cruel. It's as if "Lassie Come Home," were to conclude with the title pooch, after an incredible journey, being blindsided by a bus just as she is about to jump into the arms of Roddy McDowall.
Come to think of it, the dog, as beautiful as it is, isn't of much help to poor Sota. Instead of performing heroic deeds, Lassie-like, it mostly sits around waiting to be petted.
At the end, instead of dabbing my eyes, I had one piece of advice for Sota: Run away with the circus, kid. For you, I've got another: make tracks from "Snow Prince."