Film genres are more or less universal. Even the Western, that quintessential American genre, has inspired filmmakers everywhere, from Italy to Japan, to make local versions. But some genres thrive particularly well in certain cultures, for reasons not always clear to outsiders. Why, for example, the Japanese fascination with seishun eiga (“youth films”) — dramas about teenagers, usually set in or around schools?
One explanation is the enormous importance here of adolescence, when kids are prepping for the exams that will determine the course of many of their lives. But that is surely not the whole of it, since other exam-mad Asian countries do not have anything like Japan’s seishun eiga tradition.
Jun Ichikawa, who began his directing career with the seishun eiga “BU*SU” (1987) and “Tsugumi” (1990), is less interested in the exam pressure cooker than the struggles of adolescent outsiders to find their own path in a conformist society. Ichikawa is hardly alone — so many Japanese directors have tackled this theme as to suggest another reason for the seishun eiga’s popularity: Mostly outsiders themselves, filmmakers here often see teen rebels as kindred spirits (if not actually based on the filmmakers’ youthful selves), as well as convenient vehicles for explorations of Japanese society’s ills.
Ichikawa, however, presents the two heroines of “Ashita no Watashi no Tsukurikata (How to Become Myself Tomorrow)” as, not directorial stand-ins or symbols for this or that social malaise, but young women in their own specific right.
Based on a novel by 30-year-old Kaori Mado, his film does not romanticize or stereotype in the now-common manga-to-movie fashion. If anything, his style may be too uninflected for an audience used to the exaggerations, for melodramatic or comic effect, of the pop-cinema mainstream.
But Ichikawa also has a keen eye for the moments of truth or flashes of beauty that suggest a larger, transcendent reality. Like many Japanese directors, he often uses shots of trees, clouds, crowds of other “found” phenomena for transitions, but the best of these images evoke what might be called the eternal in the present, the universal in the mundane, in ways few others can equal. Yasujiro Ozu also did this sort of thing with his famed “pillow shots,” but his emphasis was usually on the human world (office buildings, houses, clothes flapping on laundry poles). Ichikawa reaches beyond to the natural or, if you will, the holy.
His heroines, though, are not Zen monks finding the Absolute in the sunlight through the leaves, but ordinary (if bright and sensitive) girls faced with that typical adolescent choice — fit in or be cast out. Juri (Riko Narumi) goes the former route, more out of fear than inclination. She acts the part expected of her (perky, cool, etc.), but lives in fear of the mask slipping and her true, unperky, uncool self showing. She admires a classmate, Kanako (Atsuko Maeda), who is even better at the popularity game and seems to play it effortlessly.
Meanwhile, at home, things are not going well between Mom (Mariko Ishihara) and Dad (Yoshizumi Ishihara) and Juri feels she has to be the perfect daughter to hold the family together. Where, she wonders, is the real Juri? Does she even exist — or is she a sham through and through?
Then, in the blink of an eye, Kanako falls from grace and becomes the class pariah. Juri sympathizes, but can say nothing until the primary school graduation ceremony, when she and Kanako have a rare moment alone — and speak their hearts. A bond is sealed between the two outcasts, one actual, the other potential.
Fade to junior high school, where Kanako is still the class butt and Juri still strives to be liked — and left alone by the bullies. Fade again to high school, where Kanako finally makes her escape — moving with her parents to a distant town. Now a budding writer, Juri anonymously e-mails Kanako a continuing story about a girl named Hina who becomes popular with the aid of sage advice, mostly culled from the Internet. Inspired, Kanako adopts the Hina persona — and achieves a Hina-like success — but comes to realize her act is a fake. What happens when her benefactor, known only as “Kotori (Little Bird),” stops feeding her lines?
Riko Narumi, as Juri, and Atsuko Maeda, as Kanako, both underplay by seishun eiga standards, but their performances are also a study in contrasts. Maeda, a pop idol making her film debut, is more inscrutably dark, while Narumi, an acting prodigy who has starred in three films so far this year, is more sympathetically transparent in portraying Juri’s doubts, fears and self-preserving deceits.
Their on-screen relationship is characterized by indirection, subterfuge and only flashes of candor. Thin dramatic gruel? In Ichikawa’s hands, it’s more like a bowl of perfectly prepared ochazuke (simple rice dish). Simple ingredients, delicate taste, but more satisfying — because more real — than someone else’s CG-enriched bouillabaisse. Imagine — a movie about text-messaging teens that even Ozu could admire.