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Friday, March 19, 2010

'Hana no Ato (After the Flowers)'/'Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora'

Star-crossed lovers of past and present


Women have been wielding swords in Japanese period actioners for decades now, from the days when Junko Fuji and Meiko Kaji were slicing up bad guys, Fuji with stoic grace, Kaji with icy rage.

Hana no Ato (After the Flowers) Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Worth the fight: Ito (Keiko Kitagawa) squares off against her physical and romantic match (left) in "Hana no Ato." © "HANA NO ATO" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Kenji Nakanishi
Running time: 107 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 13, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

But as good as Fuji, Kaji and other sword-wielding actresses have been, their films usually fall on the fantastic end of the genre's spectrum. The more serious or realistic samurai films typically give the ladies little more weaponry than the switch Misa Uehara (Princess Yuki) brandishes in Akira Kurosawa's "Kakushi Toride no San-akunin" (The Hidden Fortress, 1958).

Based on a story by Shuhei Fujisawa, Kenji Nakanishi's "Hana no Ato" (After the Flowers) begins like the latter sort of period film. Ito (Keiko Kitagawa), the exquisitely kimonoed daughter of a clan official, is enjoying the cherry blossoms when she meets Magoshiro (Shuntaro Miyao), a handsome low-ranking samurai. They speak to each other with excruciating politeness, but sparks are obviously flying when Ito, out of the blue, asks Magoshiro to fight her in a match with bamboo swords — and he agrees.

Her father (Jun Kunimura) approves the contest on condition that it be one time only. Ito and Magoshiro square off under his watchful eye — and when Ito attacks with ferocity and skill, Magoshiro responds in kind. He wins, barely — and their eyes lock with a charge that leaps barriers of class. For once in her life, Ito has met a man who respects her as a fighter.

From here the story follows the arc of many a star-crossed samurai romance. Magoshiro is pledged to the smilely, chirpy Kayo (Ayumi Ito), while Ito faces an arranged marriage with Saisuke (Masahiro Komoto), a samurai who is older, ruder and cruder than her paragon, Magoshiro.

Appearances, however, are deceiving. Kayo turns out to be bad, unfaithful news, while Saisuke proves to be smarter than he looks — which becomes important when Magoshiro, in Edo on clan business, is caught in a clever trap set by a ruthless rival.

Fujisawa's fiction also inspired Yoji Yamada's samurai trilogy — "Tasogare Seibei" (The Twilight Samurai, 2002), "Kakushi Ken" (The Hidden Blade, 2004) and "Bushi no Ichibun" (Love and Honor, 2006). Nakanishi shares Yamada's focus on real human behavior, from the evil to the unexpected, as well as the actualities of the era, including its rigid rules for relations between the sexes.

As played by Kitagawa ("The Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift," 2006 "Handsome Suit," 2008), Ito is a rebel against gender norms only within a narrow sphere; she may match swords with a guy, but she would never dream of running away with him. She is a bit of a priss, this woman, if one with pillowy lips and laser eyes.

But her sword-fighting skills are superb — not just "good for a woman" — while the life-or-death climax is stirring, surprising and moving. Expecting, from the opening scenes, a rather dry exercise in period authenticity, I was dabbing my eyes as the credits rolled — and wondering if it is possible to make a bad film from a Fujisawa story.

Also telling a tale of star-crossed love is Yoshihiro Fukagawa's "Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora" (Looking Up at the Half Moon). Based on Tsumugu Hashimoto's light novel series, which has spawned an anime , manga and live-action TV drama, the film centers on two teens, Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) and Rika (Shiori Kutsuna), who end up in the same provincial hospital — and in love.

Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora Rating: (3.5 out of 5)
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MOVIES
Yuichi (Sosuke Ikematsu) takes Rika (Shiori Kutsuna) to a mountain in "Hanbun no Tsuki ga Noboru Sora." © EIGA "HANBUN NO TSUKI GA NOBORU SORA" SEISAKU IINKAI

Director: Yoshihiro Fukagawa
Running time: 112 minutes
Language: Japanese
Opens March 13, 2010
[See Japan Times movie listing]

Down with a case of hepatitis A, Yuichi is boyishly rambunctious and shy around girls. Hospitalized since childhood with a heart condition, Rika queens it over everyone, including the abashed, but smitten Yuichi.

Switch scenes to Dr. Natsume (Yo Oizumi), a young medic still in mourning for his wife who died when he operated on her six years earlier. After that he gave up the specialty in which he had been a rising star — cardiology — and became an ordinary internist.

One night, Yuichi and Rika escape from the hospital and ride to the top of a nearby mountain on a borrowed motor scooter — Rika's longtime dream. For her the mountain holds memories of her father, who died of the same disease that is slowly killing her. When Yuichi hears her say she wants to die too, he is shocked out of his dreamy fantasies of the future. She needs him, he realizes, here and now.

Fukagawa, who also directed the excellent, if overlooked, "Okami Shojo" (When the Show Tent Came to Our Town, 2005), another film with a lonely, strong-willed young heroine, films this story with an acute sensitivity to the inner lives of real kids, not the airbrushed simulacra that populate the seishun eiga (youth film) genre.

Fukagawa has shot the film with soft light, desaturated colors and jittery edits that suggest the unanchored state of illness — as well as the muzzy perceptions of a love-besotted teenage boy.

The story enters its third act with a twist that makes emotional sense, given what we know about the two principals, while verging on the romantically manga-esque (which, given its source material, is only to be expected). Fukagawa finesses the credibility issue with a revelatory montage sequence that zaps straight past the logic centers to the tear ducts. The more susceptible, guys especially, will leave the theater vowing eternal love or feeling like a louse — or both. In other words, for girls, the perfect date movie.


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