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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Hitoshi Yazaki's sublime 'Strawberry Shortcakes ストロベリーショートケイクス'

Strawberry Shortcakes ストロベリーショートケイクス

Watching Strawberry Shortcakes two weeks ago, I was reminded of some independent films from the current Malaysian New Wave, albeit not shot on MiniDV, has (slightly) higher production values, and with actual sex scenes. The visited themes (loneliness, emotional paralysis, ennui etc), the stylistic choices (sparingly-used music, use of meticulously-composed wide shots, languid pacing, multiple plots and central characters), the gritty realism and atmosphere.

Tokyo was portrayed in a manner I've seldom seen in J-doramas and studio films, still beautiful, but lonelier and harsher. After going through a series of Japanese films where its characters are portrayed in a much more exaggerated manner, behaving like live-action version of anime characters (I watched this right after I finished last year's megahit HERO, starring Takuya Kimura), Strawberry Shortcakes felt like a breath of a fresh air.

Admittedly, I was initially not paying too much attention on the film since it was hours past midnight, thinking that I would go to bed if it couldn't hold my attention enough. I ended up watching the whole film.

Strawberry Shortcakes is a chick flick, but not chick flick as in romantic comedies like its whimsical film title would've tricked you into believing, but a chick flick as in a serious drama that centers on four women. But TOKYO FRIENDS this ain't.

By now, I could only stare in disbelief at my last sentence, wondering why the hell am I comparing Strawberry Shortcakes with forgettable Otsuka Ai star vehicle I reviewed last year. The former's a product of serious and accomplished filmmaking, the latter a star vehicle aimed at built-in pop audiences. It's not fair, but looking at what I wrote about Tokyo Friends, which I thought was many things that could go wrong with an ensemble piece, I realize that Strawberry Shortcakes is really an example of what's right.

This is what I wrote about Tokyo Friends last year:

I can't like the film. The humour felt forced. The melodrama too choke-inducing. The characters too soulless. It's like hanging out with a bunch of people, and these people know one another well, constantly making in-jokes, laughing about previous events, exchanging heart-to-heart talks, and then seemingly excluding your from their conversations. Gatherings like that sucked, and I felt like strangling those selfish bastards who DARED made me feel so utterly alienated. (Obviously recounting real-life experiences) The film gave me a similar experience.

On the other hand, Strawberry Shortcakes was like hanging out with a bunch of people you don't know at first and had reservations about. Then you sat together with them, and while they were't really opening themselves to you, you feel that they were so genuine and that it's becoming so increasingly fascinating to know about them that towards the end, unknowingly, unexpectedly, you have became enthralled. And you start to empathize their pain, the things they complain about.

STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKES has four characters, each with their own arcs, all juggled masterfully, no one was getting the short end of the stick, all characters were fully fleshed out as the film went on. The four protagonists are separated into two pairs:

There's Satoko (Chizuru Ikewaki), a receptionist at a brothel, perpetually cheerful and searching for true love ever since a relationship ended badly during her teens (she was dumped by a much older rocker). She has to fend off her lecherous employer as well.

Akiyo (Yuko Nakamura) is a call girl at the brothel, glamorous-looking when she's doing her job, where she deals with disgusting clients that other women don't because she needs the extra money. She wants to buy herself an apartment at the fifth floor just so she can kill herself by jumping off from there. She also sleeps in a coffin. Very morbid and fascinated with death. However, she keeps her professional and private lives separate, changing into T-shirts, removing her make-up, and wearing her glasses as soon as she gets home, finding excuses to hangout with Kikuchi (Masanobu Ando, the psychotic baddie in Battle Royale), an old college pal she's secretly in love with.

Toko and Chihiro share an apartment. Toko is an artist married to work and never seems to leave her home studio. Her latest assignment is to draw God. She also has bulimia.

The happy-go-lucky Chihiro, on the other hand, is an office girl who only wants to be a perfect wife. During a discussion with Toko about God, she answers that her boyfriend is her god. Unfortunately, her co-worker boyfriend Nagai just isn't that into her.

Both pairs don't really meet until the closing moments of the film, but there are some subtle connecting devices. (It's kinda like, er, well, ELEPHANT AND THE SEA by Ming Jin. Ironically, both films were shown at Rotterdam Film Fest 2007) But like I said, I was fascinated because despite the multiple plots and characters, this film draws us close to the protagonists because of its 'fly on the wall' observational style. By not relying on the shallow machinations of generic studio films to manipulate emotions (like elevating the melodrama, or pumping in some swelling soundtrack), the quiet moments felt more haunting for me.

Chihiro is so loyal and loving to her boyfriend that it is almost heartbreaking to see how she's constantly getting her hopes dashed by him.

Toko's world seems to consist only her art, but it's not difficult to see that she is using it mostly as solace, perhaps to lessen her loneliness and to heal a broken heart. It's all hinted, no flashbacks, no cliched scene of her running into her ex-lover and his new squeeze that you often see. Then there is a scene of her, forcing herself to vomit into the toilet bowl, and as she speaks to herself briefly, we learn enough of her in one scene than we can ever learn about some main characters in an entire movie.

Akiyo's profession and the people she deals with are so sordid that one can feel her relief whenever she changes back to her normal unkempt look and hangs out with her college buddy. During the end of her first scene with him, as he walks off from her, she looks at him with so much yearning that one can understand the depth of her feelings without the need for an overwhelming soundtrack. Yuko Nakamura's acclaimed performance as Akiyo is obviously the standout to me too.

Then, back to Satoko, who, in some other film, would've been used as a vapid airheaded comic relief. But in Strawberry Shortcakes, her quirky character is always praying to a little stone by her bed that she believes is God (or part of a comet). And everything she wishes for, as kooky as they sound at first, becomes gradually clear that she is giving voice to what the other characters have wanted and needed as well.

Aside from the great performances and characterization, I found myself admiring the meticulously composed shots in the film, a little something I myself have always been particular with and strive to achieve in my own works. A night scene of Chihiro and Toko sitting at the rooftop, the night scenery of Tokyo sprawling before them. A long uninterrupted take where they remain speaking as a train passes by in the distance, it's beautiful, it's not something everyone would bother to do in their films.

So yeah, this is another Japanese film that left quite an impression to me.

Nowadays, I've been finding film reviews harder and harder to write because I can't seem to control their length. Once again, I can't believe I've churned out something this long. There are many other better written and much more articulate reviews of this film in other websites, and I don't think I'm saying anything that haven't been said before. I guess I'm just taking notes for myself.

BTW: Check out Jason Gray's blog, he did the English subtitles for Strawberry Shortcakes. (he works as a Japanese translator for Japanese films and film festivals, also writes for Screendaily and Japan Times) I occasionally visits his blog, though been doing it more often now that I'm in Tokyo as well.