Monday, October 10, 2005

Real Teenagers!

We took full use of our Facets Cinematheque (pronounced Fa-sets Sin-a-ma-"the Q") last week hitting the theatre twice and watching several DVDs. The film showing, which Liz and I saw on Tuesday, and my friend Frank and I checked out again on Thursday, was "Shimotsuma Monogatari" which means, "Fairy Tale of Shimotsuma" (a ruralish area in Japan, about two hours by train outside of Tokyo).

Of course the American distributors, as usual assuming (probably correctly) that us Americans are only interested in "samurai", "geisha" and "kamikaze" made the questionable decision of changing the title to "Kamikaze Girls" after the "Kamikaze Jackets" that Japanese biker gangs often sport.

Other than that little glitch though, the film was incredible. I'm prone to hyperbole, but I swear this was one of the best ten films I've seen in my life. The characters were quirky and manga-ish, i.e. utterly realistic and exaggerated at the same time. Basically, they were the exciting people you meet if you put in the work to meet exciting people. The story centered on two young women--both seventeen and in the eleventh grade. One is a crazy fashion kid and the other is a bike gang kid. I won't describe them more because I don't want to rob the spontaneous amusement gained by discovering them through the film.

Refreshingly, neither of the main characters is sexualized or has their worth calculated through men. They really just discover what they are passionate about by questioning and exploring individually. This really moved Liz and I--we both identified with different parts of each of the characters and loved both their beautiful and ugly characteristics.
Failed idol singer turned successful actress Fukada Kyoko's portrayal of the fashion crazy kid is spot-on. The store they frequent in the film and becomes a major plot point, "Baby, the Stars Shine Bright", is real and in fact, you can see its homepage here.

I've never been to see that store in Daikanyama, but picked up some nice gear for Liz at Harajuku's Body Line, which deals in similar genre clothing.

Model turned rocker turned sometimes actress Tsuchiya Anna is brilliant as "Ichiko", a biker girl who communicates in poor Japanese and headbutts, but is clearly a wonderful human being.

The story deals in flashbacks that show not only how the characters came to meet and grow together, but also how they developed from kids to the mostly grown-up teens they are at the time of the story. This was what hit us--we so rarely see children and teenagers depicted realistically in Hollywood film. Children are props to be admired, passed around and saved; teenage girls are sexual objects to be desired. Even films that seek to address these issues like "American Beauty" still deal mostly in stereotypes and cookies. This film actually reflected what we like about teenagers--they think for themselves and figure stuff out and if all goes well are dependable, loveable human beings who have a lot to offer and teach.

There is a lot of warmth and humor in the story that depends on knowledge of Japanese language or culture, but I don't want to say that it's "lost" without that understanding because, with a little faith and effort, it is readily accessible. You see, this film gets what irritating "Lost in Translation" and all of its referencers missed: human feeling is communicable through genuine empathy, and those who laugh it off or mock uniqueness or different ness as missing out on the beauty of life.

When the joke is there, instead of pretending it's stupid because you don't get it, look for it and you will be rewarded with joy and growth.

You see, what impressed me most about this film was how much it loved its characters. It didn't make them feel bad for being female or quirky or not the type of people who are in films. Liz and I thought that this might be why it got such bad reviews from the SFCA (Self-absorbed Film Critics Association). Reading the reviews, we agreed that they didn't really read as strong arguments against the merit of the film, but instead as indictments of the reviewers' own inabilities to love human beings in their crazy diversity. To put it bluntly, they found the same parts of the characters that we identified with to be "unrealistic" or "boring" and lost interest as the character became independent and strong.

Furthermore, they worked their own prejudices about Japan into their assessments of the film, ripping the American title while still commenting on the "sameness of the adults in the society" with a dripping condescension that failed to acknowledge the reviewers' own "sameness". Did the film have "too much imagination" or the reviewers too little?

In the reviews, I saw the same bitter ex-pat attitude that had my foreign teacher colleagues in Japan spewing racist commentaries in all directions. Of course, at least the teachers spent months and years immersed in the society that was their target. They weren't sitting in the safety of their cushy theatre chairs, fed-up after 90 minutes of having to see lovable human characters instead of replications of their stereotypes.


Blogger Gar said...

foreign films seem to always get really extreme reviews from critics who know nothing about the culture that the film comes from... either they love the film to death or they hate it.

but yeah, sounds like a pretty interesting film... your review has convinced me that i should see it.

btw, i love the picture of Kyoko next to the trainstop sign. brings back memories of all the days i spent commuting there via train...

10:52 AM  
Blogger xian said...

Thanks for the read and thoughts, Gar. I actually felt the same way about the train station shots. All the memories of chilling on the platform chatting it up with friends or students or rifling through manga came flooding back.

To put it much more concisely, I think that great film is like great living. It's connecting to people and their real experiences. In this case, those who have lived and loved in Japan, can connect to the concrete experiences of these girls and catch a new perspective or relive a familiar, maybe forgotten one. Those who have not, they can learn and grow because someone else has captured these experiences for them. I can't say that either is better--both are pleasurable, learning experiences--which is why I recommend the film so highly--it does both.

1:05 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ahhh! The lolita movie I've been sweating proverbial balls to get!


(And no perverts, "lolita" refers to the style that Momoko's wearing even though technically she's considered wa-loli/sweet lolita.)

I finally found your blog too! <3


5:49 AM  

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