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Saturday, January 20, 2007

BACKDANCERS! made me wish hiro of SPEED would do more films

(From left to right: Sonim, hiro, Aya Hirayama, Saeko)

I watched Backdancers! during my flight back from Shanghai, it was the first film I chose from the in-flight entertainment after finding out that it starred Hiroko Shimabukuro, now known by most only as hiro, member of the now disbanded Japanese girl group, SPEED. She who was once an object of my foolish teenage infatuation, the inspiration of my many creative works, my first attempt in video editing, my first attempt in screenwriting, my first attempt in fanfiction. Ah, the foolish whims of an ignorant teenage boy, unsure back then what his true dreams were, only to slowly get into writing and filmmaking, things he fantasized as a child, all because of her.

Despite having in possession her single Itsuki Futari de (which featured the title track and another track called I Will Take You), since last year, I was completely unaware of the fact that they were soundtracks from the movie Backdancers!, hell I wasn't even aware of the existence of the movie until yesterday.

To see hiro onscreen again was a strange experience, I remembered the trauma I had whilst watching Takeshi Miike's 1999 film, Andromedia, a star vehicle for SPEED all these years ago, when I witnessed hiro's first onscreen kiss. My entire being was seared by an overwhelming jealousy that left me breathless and blind. There was nothing else I remembered about the movie, just melodramatic sap, the aforementioned kissing scene, and some dude tossing a computer into the sea in the ending. I hated the movie from the deepest depth of my soul.

Backdancers! unlike Andromedia, was more an ensemble film, with hiro playing Yoshika, one of the four back-up dancers for Japan's hottest pop act, Juri (Hasebe Yu). The rest of the three were Miu (Aya Hirayama), Aiko (Saeko), and Tomoe (Sonim). Together, they were known as "Juri With Backdancers", until Juri announces her sudden retirement to get married. The Backdancers are left hanging, an enthusiastic young manager are assigned to look after them just in case Juri would return. A studio exec claims that young Japanese pop idols who married early would always return, desperate for a comeback after a divorce, the only one who never did was the legendary Yamaguchi Momoe. (I agreed)

Miu and Yoshika are best friends since young, Aiko considers backup dancing a stepping stone for a possible solo singing career, Tomoe was once a night club hostess and single mother whose young son was left to stay with her own parents while she attempts to make a living in Tokyo. This film reflects the current Japanese pop music industry, where profit and numbers take precedence over passion and quality of music for studio execs, where one young pop idol is easily replaced by another that is packaged by the recording label, where fans are perpetually fickle, embracing a new pop act every month, forgetting the one before.

What about those who fell through the cracks? Never making it big? A futureless career as a back-up dancer, without anything resembling a 'big finish', never meaning much to the public except as ornaments for the pop singer? Their passion for dancing being the only reason to keep them going, or maybe it was just another side job.

In the Japanese pop industry, a person's past endeavours are viewed as burdens, when the future of Backdancers! are in jeopardy, Aiko, desperate to become a solo act, accepts an offer for a magazine photoshoot, only to realize in horror, during the day of the shoot, that she is supposed to bare it all, just so her 'former Backdancer' tag can be forgotten completely. Tomoe returns to her night club, forced to deal with asshole customers who want her to dance for them during their karaoke session, because? She was a Backdancer. How many aspiring singers and actresses in Japan had to endure this in real life, especially when chances of stardom are so minimal?

Thinking of this makes me shudder, and this comes from a guy who grew up in the music industry. Check out this American Wota entry about people's relationships with Jpop fandom, the different kinds of passion, how some idols do whatever it takes to maintain an invisible line between their personal and professional lives. I guess that's the pain of being a performer, you aren't just performing onscreen, or onstage, but whatever you are in front of the public isn't necessarily who you really are.

So? What is the real hiro like? This is a question I'm afraid I'll never get to know. The film I watched yesterday, to be honest, is filled with cliches and manipulations that under normal circumstances, would have made me scoff, and flip to another channel for another film.

All right, maybe not. The main cast was too damned cute. I like Aya Hirayama, especially that funky hairdo she had in the film.

Aya Hirayama

Then, I liked Sonim too, she's hot. (Although I never really knew that she was Korean until now)


And then, there's Saeko, she's CUTE!


How can this film be regarded as normal when it had hiro in it? Seeing her was like revisiting a high school crush after many years of not seeing her. Memories of her, sealed long ago, would start trickling out, first the happy moments, then the sadder moments, and a bit of both. A strange indescribably bittersweet feeling. Whatever I felt for her back then, how did it stop? And why?

Hiro Shimabukuro, begging Swifty to marry hereMy eyes flitted through the small screen during group scenes, trying to catch a better glimpse of hiro, I needed to savour every single moment, I needed to preserve into the one perfect mental image, just so I could keep up with what I've missed in the past few years. I blamed the fickleness of the public when it came to Jpop fandom, yet didn't I myself ceased paying anymore attention to hiro since I went to university nearly three years ago? The idea of her dating Hitoshi Matsumoto, a comedian 21 years her senior, was too much for me to bear.

To me, from the beginning of the film, she was like Greta Garbo, she was like Audrey Hepburn, she was like Ingrid Bergman, incomparable film legends of yesteryears, radiating this magnetic star quality that made the film hers. I was drawn to her character, Yoshika, cool and reserved, quiet and mysterious, always standing at the corner, away from the three other girls, a bored expression that strangely, accentuated her beauty.

Then she smiled. The twinkling in her eyes, that wide smile, so dazzling that it seared right into my mind, as if she was daring me to erase her again.

There is a scene where Yoshika and the other three girls, facing an imminent split, cry out to their manager when they are on stage after a performance.

(I'm paraphrasing, since I can't remember the English subs word-by-word)

"We don't want to end like this!"

It was a desperate plea.

I finally understood what the film was about.

The fictional group in the film, Backdancers was what SPEED should have been in hiro's mind. A group that stayed together to do what they loved to do, disregarding sales or commercial expectations, never minding much about the 'big finish', just savour the moment. Even as a solo artiste, she may never reach the kind of popularity she had during her SPEED days again, her last two singles, Hero and Itsuka Futari De, having lukewarm sales, but I can see she wasn't going to let herself disappear into obscurity without putting up a fight.

hiro had always wanted to be a singer since she was five, and couldn't imagine herself becoming anything else. The first half of the film was average at best, objectively speaking, yet it elevated itself into a whole other level when the Backdancers! perform with a has-been heavy metal band of middle-aged guys, and, in an attempt to reinvent themselves, the band performs the funky piece Itsuka Futari De, hiro starts singing with the lead vocalist. Cinematic magic. I found that moment almost as special as the ballet scene in Hana and Alice (the film version of 'Itsuka Futari De', which was duet, was far superior to the released single), and the film is worth watching merely for that scene itself. Suddenly, the focus was shifted to hiro, the film truly became hers.

The end credits came. I sighed inwardly. Film lasted for nearly two hours, I don't know whether I would ever watch this film again, since the chances of its DVD being available anywhere in Malaysia are slim. Yet in that two hours, hiro made me feel... warm.

Looking from a window above is like a story of love, can you hear me?
Came back only yesterday, we're moving farther away, want you near me

All I needed was the love you gave, all I needed for another day,
And all I ever knew - only you...

Hiro's Itsuka Futari de いつか二人で

* Ending of Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels reference.