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Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Live-action version of The Last Love Song on This Little Planet 最終兵器彼女 is rather lacking

Shortly after first watching Shunji Iwai's Love Letter ten years ago, I developed a little teenage crush on Sakai Miki, who played the young Itsuki in the film. It's impossible not to, there was this innocent beauty in her, coupled by the gracefulness of the scenes she was in. Especially the one where she skates by herself in the midst of a pure white snowy plains...

... and then finding a frozen dragonfly, understanding her dad's passing, it was a very elegant scene.

On the year I discovered SPEED by accident at Tokyo, I was actually looking for Sakai Miki's album, LIKE A BEST FRIEND (which I did).

But since then, I never knew what happened to her. I thought she may have retired from acting, living the blissful life of a housewife.

So I was surprised when I saw her in a supporting role at THE LAST LOVE SONG ON THIS LITTLE PLANET, which is more popularly known as SAIKANO, or also SHE, THE ULTIMATE WEAPON, which is based on a manga and anime.

Being a 2005 film, ten years had passed since her debut in LOVE LETTER. From playing a high school girl to playing a married woman pining for her often-absent husband, a flirtatious 'senpai' character. How different from her role in LOVE LETTER!

Sakai Miki in Saikano
Sakai Miki in Saikano (not a good pic)

I'm saying all these because this discovery is really one of those rare bright spots of the film (I said 'discovery', not her performance).

(Random: As I type this, the ending of LOVE LETTER is playing, and the face of Sakai Miki is immortalized in a drawing behind a bookmark.)

SAIKANO is a tragic high school romance done during the whole 'JUN-AI' craze. But instead of having a girl suffering from terminal illness, the female protag Chise (Aki Maeda) has been experimented upon, turned into an ultimate weapon of mass destruction due to the cybernetic implants that gradually replace her own organs. She finds her own humanity slipping away from her because she is forced to kill and cause, er, mass destruction. Nothing more than a military pawn in an all-out global war. A global-war that started because of her creation.

It's really quite a bummer.

So this film is really about her relationship with her boyfriend, the emotionally awkward Shuji (Shunsuke Kubozuka), who has to struggle with his own feelings, and the fact that he isn't going to live a normal life. Suffering from low-esteem, Chise, of course, wants to push Shuji away so that he doesn't have to go through all these. (I do wonder why the Japanese military would want to experiment upon some introverted, self-pitying young teenage girl and turn someone like her into their ultimate weapon)

Having (regrettably) not seen the anime nor read the manga despite glowing recommendations, I can't compare the film with its source material (and even if I have, I won't). As a film, I think Saikano is terribly lacking. While Brian the Cinematographer told me via MSN that he couldn't sit through the first 10 minutes of the film, I made myself finish the film, and it was a struggle.

This film suffers from a common problem I notice in a lot of contemporary mainstream Japanese filmmaking. That the filmmaker may have been so influenced by television, especially Japanese dramas, that despite working on a different medium, armed with a bigger budget, he is incapable of making his film 'cinematic'. Watching it, I felt as if I was just watching a J-dorama episode on TV, albeit with bigger budget and more special effects. Don't get me wrong, this film probably has a modest budget, and it shows. But as a filmmaker, I think it is up to his creativity to conceal his limitations and maximize what he has. I don't think that happened.

Thus this film is a stark contrast of the film I previously reviewed, HAPPILY EVER AFTER. Without the visual flair and mise en scene skills necessary to elevate the film, Saikano crumbled upon the weight of its manipulated angst and unremarkable aesthetics.

I mentioned this film when writing my review for CYBORG SHE (MY GIRLFRIEND IS A CYBORG) last month saying that they both have similar premises (though Chise isn't really a cyborg, just a poor tormented chick with cybernetic implants), and while rather different in mood and tone, I can't help but mentally compare both films. And I have to say that CYBORG SHE is a vastly superior film thanks to the director's storytelling, the chemistry between the leads and their performances (... probably bigger budget too). Although recycling his tricks from MY SASSY GIRL was what irked me most about Kwak Jae-Yong's film, but I can't help but feel that if the director had taken more chances, the film would've been better.

This film could've been saved, in spite of its director's stylistic mistakes, if anchored by strong performances. But this leads me to another major problem of the film. I personally think that Aki Maeda delivered the best performance in the film, yet Shunsuke Kubozuka may have been woefully miscast as the protagonist.

Already 24 when the film was being made (Maeda was 20), he already looked too old for his role as a 17 year old high school student. And I also think that he looks too rugged and edgy for the role. I'm not going to make any assumptions about his acting skills, because he might have been really good in other films and I don't know, but as the audience surrogate and emotional anchor of the film, he just doesn't look right as Shuji. And seems as if the dramatic scenes in the later parts of the film were way out of his league. Worst of all, I don't think there's chemistry between the two leads.

They may have needed someone who is younger and more, conventionally good-looking, for the role. And why lose the glasses? It's not as if the live-action films needed Shuji to be an action hero.

And so, a film that drew me in initially because of its intriguing premise became increasingly taxing to watch. Once it started to tug some heartstrings, I merely felt numb, and lament at its missed opportunities. Despite having Sakai Miki in it.

SAIKANO trailer