Japan’s passion for love stories moves from TV to big screen

Love stories are all the rage in Japan. It seems to have started with the South Korean TV dramas, especially Winter Sonata, but Japanese productions have also ridden the wave, as movies such as Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World) have particularly benefited from all the tears and throbbing hearts.

One cannot escape the feeling, however, that this all has more to do with television than the cinema, since many of these projects not only originate with TV networks, featuring their staff or actors, they differ little from TV in terms of visual style and writing.

Not all TV is the same, however. BS-i, the digital satellite channel, has also been doing love stories in its series, Koisuru Nichiyobi, consciously combining new actors with veteran film directors.

Now, in a project that in some ways resembles WOWOW’s efforts in the late 1990s, BS-i is sponsoring a series of movies it calls “Japanese Breakthrough Films,” which will feature new talent both in front of and behind the camera. The first two films are Shin Mimibukuro: Nobuhiro-san, a horror movie by the newcomer Keisuke Toshima, and a film version of Koisuru Nichiyobi, directed by the experienced helmsman Ryuichi Hiroki.

Perhaps it is the difference in age–though I suspect it has more to do with diverging views of cinema–but Koisuru Nichiyobi is by far the better film. Compared to Nobuhiro-san, which uses every cliche in the horror film book without originality or introspection, Hiroki’s work comes off feeling fresh and vibrant, especially in its differences from the regular TV fare.

The story by young screenwriter Yoshihiro Izumi is well-structured, but a little bit too neat, one that could have come off as precious in less skilled hands. Akira (Takami Mizuhashi), in her final year in a rural high school, has to move to Tokyo the next day because of her father’s change of jobs. Her worry is whether to confess the love she has had for her classmate Nao (Ryuya Wakaba) since they were in kindergarten. She plans a farewell party just for the two of them, but Nao, ignorant of her feelings, invites Tamaki (Yuriya Haga) as well, hoping to get a kiss out of her. Tamaki, however, is only playing with Nao to get back at Akira, who has become the object of attention of her former boyfriend, Gaku (Kazunori Sasaki).

The interpersonal relations inevitably erupt into an emotional menage a quatre near the end, but Hiroki’s direction first shines out in its restraint. Hiroki has filmed youthful romance before in such works as 800 Two Lap Runners (1994), and like there, refuses to play up the sentiment through persistent close-ups a la TV. His detached camera, emphasized through a number of extended long takes, not only tones down the adolescent turmoil, it delicately accentuates the distance between the characters, foregrounding the tension in their clumsy efforts to touch and communicate with others. He does not abandon the close-up, however, but rather skillfully uses it as much to divide these characters as to clarify their stances. Little here is glamorous, as even his promising starlets look more frumpy than fashionable.

In a film where verbal communication is under question–whether to tell Nao or not–the image unburdened with excess explanation comes to the fore, a point seemingly underlined by Akira’s persistent use of her cell phone to take pictures of the town she will leave, recording it for memory and for emotional posterity.

The rural city here operates under a different, more circular time than that of the metropolis, but Hiroki, known for his city films, makes this more an issue of the individual’s efforts to resist the flow than of the essence of the traditional countryside.

In this, the subject of the female heart, a mystery explored in many Hiroki works from to Futei no Kisetsu (I Am an SM Writer, 2000) to L’Amant (2004), ultimately revolves around the image and that circular movement central to his much awarded Vibrator (2003). What is important is less where you are going than how you come back. It is forward-looking nostalgia, you could say.

Koisuru Nichiyobi is a small film, without the cast or the budget to make it a grand romance. But it is that modesty of size, coupled with a skilled hand, that makes it a down-to-earth tale of the heart, one grounded in the cinematic past, but looking toward a future not monopolized by televised romance.

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