Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Cinejapan 3: Rainbow Sky

Oftentimes it is the actions that we do not do that we regret, rather than the actions that we go and do. In the movie Niji no Megami (lit. Goddess’ Rainbow, English title = Rainbow Song) that very thing is explored – and through it we see a nice little movie carried by solid acting talent by some of Japan’s rising actors. At times conventional by standards of Japanese Drama it has some unconventional elements that make it an interesting film.

While most stories have a dramatic twist involving the maiming or death of one of the main characters near the end, this movie does it in reverse – it is presented in the beginning of the movie. Tomoya Kishida (an older and different looking Hayato Ichihara, All About Lily Chou-Chou) works as an assistant to a film/TV director. One day he sees a strange upside-down rainbow and sends a picture via cellphone to his old friend Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno, Swing Girls, Nodame Cantabile TV) who is in California at the time. Unfortunately, shortly afterwards Tomoya gets word that Aoi has died in a plane accident. As Tomoya grieves over her death, and as her family prepares for the funeral, we flash back to the time when Tomoya and Aoi were once college students, and the relationship they both had as friends.

The pacing of the story comes along smoothly, and is divided into several parts, each telling a separate yet connected story between the two of them. Also inserted within the narrative is a movie-within-a-movie, aptly titled The End of the World, starring both protagonists. The visuals of the movie are nothing much to talk about, but some do give a certain dreamy feel reminiscent of Shunji Iwai (not surprising since he was one of the producers.) The soundtrack is as expected of a Japanese Drama: simple and unassuming. The ending song is great too.

The structure of the film makes us consider the situation at hand, and lets us view the flashbacks knowing that this was the past, considering the tragedy that will unfold in the future. It makes the experience a little more bittersweet. This story structure has been used before in the adaptation of Crying Out Love in the Center of the World, but in a more subtle way.

Of course, the acting was superb from both leads. Up to this point I’d only seen Juri Ueno in happy comedic roles so it was a nice change to see her in something serious here. Yu Aoi (Honey and Clover, among others) as Aoi’s blind younger sister was great; she was also from All About Lily-Chou-Chou, and it was nice to see her and Hayato Ichihara together again (especially in the last scene, which brought back memories of the aforementioned film, while being a nice dramatic scene in itself.) I heard she won an award for her acting here.

As the ending credits rolled I couldn’t help but contemplate the film’s message of missed opportunities in life. So all you readers out there (all 3 of you, heh) seize the day and don’t be indecisive.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cinejapan 2: Searching for Clovers

It is no secret that one of my most favorite anime of last year was Honey and Clover. Upon learning that there would be a live-action adaptation I was a bit excited, but worried at the same time, because there would inevitably be expectations coming consciously or unconsciously from myself regarding the film and how well it translated from the manga/anime.

Takemoto (Sho Sakurai, from the boys’ group Arashi) is a timid student of an arts school. He specializes in woodworking and creating sculptures. He lives in a little dorm house with fellow art students, including the eccentric Morita (Yusuke Iseya, Yomigaeri,) the hopelessly infatuated (to the point of being stalker-ish) Mayama (Ryo Kase, Cutie Honey) and the equally hopelessly infatuated Yamada (newcomer Megumi Seki) who is in love with Mayama, even if he is already much in love with another woman. When a new, talented student, Hagumi Hanamoto (Yu Aoi, All About Lily Chou-Chou) comes into the school, the relationships between these five individuals get even more complicated.

The movie depicts the lives, trials and tribulations of the four as they get through school, relationships, and life in general, a slice-of life thing if you will. The music of the film is enriched by legendary game/anime composer Yoko Kanno who gives a light-hearted yet apropos soundtrack, in addition to something I really liked in the anime adaptation: the insert songs! In addition to the customary Arashi song (since there was an Arashi member in the cast) there are a few other songs in the movie that accompany the film.

The character portrayals of the different characters are slightly different from what they were in the anime: Mayama is even creepier than he was before (or maybe there was a lot of implied stuff in the anime that I didn’t get) and his relationship with Yamada isn’t that pronounced here either. Yamada is spot on but she lacks scenes with Morita, and the interaction between the two was one of the nice things about the anime. Morita is less mysterious, not as eccentric (thus making the character a little more serious) and more open to selling off his works for money, which seems to have become one of the plot elements that the movie tackles. As for Takemoto, I can’t say one way or the other. He was okay in the movie, but I felt a bit different regarding him. Hagu in the movie was pretty good, still cute but as interesting a character as she was in the anime.

The movie covers everything it can from the first season of the anime, which is 26 episodes. Now, the trouble with having a movie adaptation of a manga series/anime is that despite all attempts to do so, you simply can’t squeeze all of 40 manga chapters/26 episodes of anime into a 2 hour movie without doing serious overtime. That means cutting out interesting side stories or integrating them (Lohmeyer, Mayama’s officemates) cutting out or reshaping entire main plot elements (the ferris wheel and an interesting take on the searching for clovers scene) inventing new ones to fill in the gaps (the car, the sea, the inn) and shortening others (Takemoto’s trip.) While others are fun (Hagu and Morita working together on a painting, Mayama snooping around, the soy sauce painting) the rest are not as fun.

I think Takemoto’s trip of self discovery was a bit too downplayed in this version (although, given that that particular arc lasted a few episodes, it’s a bit understandable.) It was a grand trip to discover himself, a trek to the northernmost part of Japan. Here the trip is a lot shorter and the experiences he had less important in my view. His meeting with the temple repairmen was also downplayed, which is a shame since that was one of the factors that built up to the emotional climax of the first anime season.

Also, one great moment with Mayama and Yamada in the movie doesn’t have as strong an effect as in the anime, because honestly certain things don’t film that well (like tears!) It’s still a nice scene though, even if the buildup to the scene wasn’t as fleshed out as in the anime. Even so, the movie is painted in lush, soft colors.

In any case, the movie adaptation of Honey and Clover is nice, but not must-see. For fans of the series it may serve as an interesting supplement to an already fantastic series, but otherwise, as a standalone romance, it isn’t that bad, but not that great either as viewers may not see the total meaning of some of the scenes if they haven’t seen the anime or manga.

Monday, June 04, 2007

Cinejapan 1: Sunshine after the rain

Without a doubt, Akira Kurosawa was one of the greatest and most influential auteurs of cinema, having revolutionized the medium in several ways (with the help of his longtime crews, actors and staff,) either through storytelling, cinematography, or even the usage of music.

In 1999 Takashi Koizumi, who had worked as an assistant for Kurosawa as early as Derzu Uzala, and had served as an assistant director for some of his last great epics like Kagemusha and Ran, directed a movie based on one of Kurosawa’s scripts, as a tribute to the director. The title was Ame Agaru, or “After the Rain.” With a cast of actors who had been in previous Kurosawa movies, especially from that of his last moviemaking period (where he usually sought foreign financial backing for his films) the movie ultimately turns into a very light, introspective yet simple film, reminiscent of both the master’s early years and of his last.

Ihei Misawa (Akira Terao, Dreams, Ran) is a ronin (masterless samurai) who wanders the land along with his wife, Tayo (Yoshiko Miyazawa, who was Lady Sue in Ran) one day they are stranded due to rains and forced to settle inside an inn until the rain stops, where other villagefolk are staying. There, Ihei risks his own honor as a samurai (by prizefighting, which is banned) to give food to the people and to make him happy. By this time, the Lord of the domain, Lord Nagai (Shiro Mifune, son of Toshiro Mifune) learns of a skilled ronin and invites him to become his sword fencing teacher.

The acting is solid – Akira Terao is humble, kind yet skilled with the sword – compare this with the samurai of the fiefdom (and Kurosawa’s similar treatment of the samurai character in Yojimbo and Sanjuro – unrefined, gruffy, yet honest and wise to the world, quite different from what was then the conventional image of the samurai.) Shiro Mifune is also solid, showing some of the brazenness and the intensity of his father.

Other Kurosawa veterans are also in the movie in supporting parts, notably Tatsuya Nakadai (take your pick!) and Mieko Harada (who was unforgettable as Lady Kaede in Ran) Hidetaka Yoshioka (Madadayo) among others.

The music is simple and is reminiscent of sountracks of previous Kurosawa films. They do not get in the way of the film, but help enrich it.

However, despite being in the spirit of Kurosawa, Kurosawa’s eye for the picture, the way he treated each shot like a painting (hence his superflat cinematography in most movies) is not here. That in itself is good, as at least Koizumi is not imitating Kurosawa, but treating Kurosawa material like his own.

The message of the film is simple, and basically the movie’s tone gives you a warm feeling inside, a message of hope. In one of the last shots of the film Ihei and Tayo look into the vast sea, illuminated by the sun. After the rain, there is indeed sunshine.

Love Story x 2

… I honestly cannot think of a good title for this one.

A few years ago a novel came out in Japan. Called Socrates in Love, it eventually became a bestseller among millions of Japanese readers, beating the record of one of my favorite Japanese novels, Norwegian Wood. It was a simple enough story of love and moving on. It was nothing too highfalutin, the novel was simply a tale of pure love. Now if you’re as jaded about the whole love thing as some people are, you’re better off passing on this.

Soon two movies came out adapting the material: a rather faithful Japanese adaptation with Kou Shibasaki (Battle Royale) and a later Korean remake of the movie starring Cha Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl) and Song Hae-gyo (Endless Love.) Although both borrowed from the same source material, both movies approach the material in so very different ways. Don’t worry melodrama lovers, both are reasonably enjoyable.

Let’s start with the Japanese movie first. Crying out Love in the Center of the World (the title comes from the Harlan Ellison short story) is the story of Sakutaro, a man who comes back to his old hometown. He is going to get married to Ritsuko (Kou Shibasaki) but as something in his life seems incomplete. He seems to be searching for something elusive in his life: closure. After finding a bunch of cassette tapes in his old room, he begins to reminisce about the past and his first great love, Aki. As more of the plot unfolds we get to see how this girl changed his life.

The setting of the flashback scenes is Japan in the 1980s and the film does a decent job in portraying the era, the music and the sensibilities of the time (even old school Walkman players!) Add this to the great cinematography of the film, showing lush yet low key hues (lots of blue in there) in the present day scenes, and ordinary hues in the flashback scenes, yet often with a light-saturated feel, especially in the later scenes, evoking the pictures of, say, Shunji Iwai.

The theme of the movie dwells not only on how Sakutaro is striving to let go, but also how he is dealing with his fiancée with that context in mind. Compared with other Japanese Melodramas, the film fits in well. The mood of the film is somber, lacking the weirdness of some of its Japanese brothers, or the general wackiness or slapstick of its South Korean cousins. It is in this quiet that we feel the most emotion, the grief of a past love, the void left by one’s longing for someone, the experience of one’s first heartbreak. Many will find the pace slow, but this pace, in my opinion, is deliberate; as one’s emotional journeys are never fast.

The South Korean take of the movie, My Girl and I, is an entirely different take of the source material, although both films reproduce the same scenes. A number of big names were involved with the project; although Jeon Yun-su (who helmed the cinematic flop Yesterday) was directing, the touch of screenwriter Kwak Jae-young (famously known for directing My Sassy Girl, Windstruck among others) is definitely present. As stated before, the movie stars Cha Tae-hyun (My Sassy Girl) in the male lead, while Song Hae-gyo (best known in Korean Dramas in the first season of Endless Love) who give a good performance. May I also say that she’s quite gorgeous. Being in their twenties (I think) wearing school uniforms for high school students seem really weird to me (especially after seeing Cha Tae-hyun don one in My Sassy Girl.)

Kwak’s unique brand of situational/slapstick humor can be found early on in the movie; which is a common plot device in most Korean melodramas – soften em up before going in for the kill. When the tears do come, the movie will squeeze you for it with all it has.

With respect to mood, the movie feels much lighter than the quieter Japanese counterpart; whether this is a better interpretation or not is entirely on the viewer’s hands. We are introduced to the characters not through death (in the last film the first reminiscence scene was during a funeral) but by something else. The movie also cuts the fiancée subplot that was in the other film.

The theme of this movie is not as much focused on letting go as the Japanese adaptation; rather it is a fond, yet bittersweet reminiscence of a first love. There are still elements that do suggest Cha’s character as one seeking resolution, however, so it’s not entirely different. Thanks to its more conventional tone, it seems more accessible to the casual Asian romance fan than the other film.

In any case, love and life are both fleeting. Both movies teach us, or warn us to seize the day and treasure every precious memory you have to the fullest.