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Friday, Sept. 17, 2010
'Kimi ga Odoru, Natsu (The Summer You Danced)'
Dancing in the face of tear-jerking adversity
Melodramas have been a staple of Japanese film for decades, proving over and over the observation that Japanese audiences, more than anything else, love a good cry. I've gone to screenings where the women sitting around me take out their handkerchiefs even before the lights go down. The men start blubbing away too, but with nothing to stanch the tears.
Giants of the Golden Age — Ozu, Mizoguchi and Naruse — elevated melodramatic material to art, while winning overseas accolades, but in recent years directors capable of similar alchemy have been few. Some Japanese films with strong melodramatic elements, such as 2008's Oscar-winning "Okuribito (Departures)," have appeared on the foreign festival circuit and reduced audiences to sobbing wrecks, but most are for the domestic market only.
One in the latter category is Hideyuki Katsuki's "Kimi ga Odoru, Natsu" ("The Summer You Danced"), which is set in a provincial beauty spot, tells a story of pure-hearted young love and features a cute kid slowly dying of a terminal disease. (The character is based on an actual girl who makes a brief, miraculous, appearance at the end.)
A director who cannot squeeze tears from a Japanese audience with a story like this ought to find another line of work, but veteran journeyman Katsuki gets the job done without descending into the maudlin swamp. Watching the film's pedestrian middle section, I thought I would escape scot-free, but in the last act Katsuki stirred up a rousing, touching finale as impossible to resist as a rubber mallet to the knee cap. I was a goner.
The hero is Shimpei (Junpei Mizobata), a nice, normal guy from Kochi, a picturesque port on the island of Shikoku, who goes to Tokyo to make his fame and fortune as a photographer. But life in the big city is tough: We first see Shimpei running frantically to a shoot and apologizing profusely to his boss — a star commercial cameraman (Tatsuya Fujiwara) — for being late.
Five years earlier, Shimpei had been a star in his own right, as a flag dancer or matoi in an amateur dance troupe that performed every year in the Kochi Yosakoi Festival. He and his best bud Tsukasa (Shunji Igarashi) not only danced together but competed for the affections of Kaori (Haruka Kinami), the team's fresh-faced dancing queen. Actually, by the time the extended flashback begins, Shimpei has already won — and Tsukasa is openly resentful.
Why did Shimpei turn his back on his hometown? He starts to wonder when he gets word that his ever-perky mom (Yoshiko Miyazaki) is ill. Hurrying to Kochi, he learns that Kaori's kid sister Sakura (Ayane Omori) is also in hospital with a kidney disease that kills nearly all its victims within five years. Sakura's time is nearly up — and she wonders if Shimpei will ever keep his promise, made years ago, to dance with her at the festival. A decent, if conflicted, guy at heart, Shimpei decides to stay in Kochi and get the old gang back together for Sakura's sake — and his own.
Japanese films about small-town boys (and girls) wrestling with the urge to leave or come home are common enough. (The recently reviewed "Railways" took this narrative tack, though with a middle-aged salaryman hero.) Provincial folk in these films are often portrayed as less swift, if nicer, than the urban norm. But Shimpei, Kaori, Tsukasa and even little Sakura are as fully bright and self aware as their city cousins.
Also, the performances, starting with Mizobata Kinami, are less frantic and overwrought than the genre standard — and thus seem more realistically low-key Japan (or maybe I'm just projecting my own Midwest America small-town upbringing). If fact, everyone, including Shimpei's gruff farmer dad (Daisuke Ryu), is so unaffectedly likable that the plot manipulations, such as Sakura's sudden turn for the worse just as rehearsals are reaching their peak, feel somehow less manipulative.
Finally, the team's big dance number is staged with a visual brio that energizes and inspires without trying to overwhelm. It made me proud to be Japanese — and I only have a permanent residence card.
I have to add the disclaimer that "Kimi ga Odoru, Natsu" is a thoroughly mainstream entertainment and more than slightly formulaic. I also have to confess that as the credits rolled, showing Sakura's real-life model dancing bravely away, I had a lump in my throat as big as the Rainbow Bridge. Yes, I've been here too long.