In the 1990s the WOWOW satellite station financed a series of films under the banner J Movie Wars. With producer Takenori Sento at the helm, J Movies Wars became a fertile breeding ground for young directing talent, including Naomi Kawase, who won the Cannes Camera d’Or prize in 1997 for her debut feature “Moe no Suzaku” (Suzaku) — and was briefly married to producer Sento.
The BS-i satellite channel is now trying something similar with its Japanese Break Through Films series. But instead of focusing primarily on auteurs, as was Sento’s inclination, the series’ producers are nurturing a wider range of talent, including scriptwriters and stars. Also, while Sento took laser aim at prestigious festival prizes with arty minimalist pics, the Japanese Break Through folks are trying to please audiences, as well as festival programmers, with films in popular genres, such as horror and seishun eiga (teen drama).
Veteran director Ryuichi Hiroki has made two films for the series, both with the main title “Koi Suru Nichiyobi (Love On Sunday),” also used by a BS-i drama series that ran from 2003 to 2005. Both films have a handheld-shot, unrehearsed feel, as though Hiroki is not so much staging a drama as capturing his characters on the fly. His situations — a heart-wrenching goodbye to a hometown in the first film, a troubled final reunion in the second — are seishun eiga standards, but he strips them of genre cliches. Also, his big emotions — from stormy fights to teary confessions — emerge directly from his character’s inner cores, not the more usual plot points.
This stress on the natural has led some reviewers to call these films “small” — perhaps in contrast to the many overproduced, overacted junai (“pure love”) dramas that are strenuously “big.” For me, though, they are ambitious attempts to capture feelings that loom so large in teenage lives but are so often dismissed by jaded adults as “phases” or reduced by jaded directors to formulas. Hiroki doesn’t always succeed, but he is quite good at using seemingly commonplace acts to reveal deep emotional truths, as they so often do in real life but so seldom do on the screen.
His second Japanese Break Through film, “Koi Suru Nichiyobi Watashi, Koi Shita (Love on Sunday — I Loved)” has several of these moments, though it begins with the most dubiously melodramatic of premises. Nagisa (Maki Horikita), a 17-year-old girl who has recently lost her mother to cancer, learns that she has the same disease — and only three months to live. Are we groaning already?
But Hiroki’s setup for this story is stoically low key — no wailing relatives, no teary breakdown in front of a sympathetic-but-helpless medico. Instead, in one scene Nagisa gets the news; in almost the next she is bound for the Chiba seaside town where she grew up — and first fell in love, her father none the wiser.
There she encounters Satoshi (Shunsuke Kubozuka), the boy she was mad for in junior high, now grown up and working as a recycler, tooling around town in his pickup collecting old air conditioners, computers and other junk. He is living alone in his parent’s old house in an idyllic spot by the sea, while carrying on an affair with a sexy married woman (Saki Takaoka) who runs a funky bar and is mother to a cute little girl. In other words, he has built a slacker’s paradise for himself — and is not nearly as excited to see Nagisa as she is to see him, though he invites her to stay with him.
Nagisa hides her illness from Satoshi, for reasons entirely understandable, but the lack of candor on both sides makes for a strained, artificial atmosphere. Neither Nagisa nor Satoshi want this particular bubble to break, however, so they pretend to be nothing more than old school friends, enjoying each other’s company after a long separation. Satoshi, however, has to tend to his lover, while Nagisa quickly susses the truth. Here, logically, is where she should board the bus back home, but she doesn’t. To do so would be an admission that she has wasted her time — now an unbearably precious commodity. Instead, she becomes determined to extract meaning from what is clearly a doomed relationship.
Maki Horikita is too obviously an 18-year-old in ruddy health to do the tragic wasting thing very well — Garbo in “Camille” she is emphatically not — but she does convey Nagisa’s conflicted inner state (desperation warring with pride) with delicacy and force. Fans who only know her as the lovable naive country girl in the nostalgic hit “Always” will be surprised at her transformation, but the intensity and vulnerability she brought to the earlier role are still intact.
As Satoshi, Shunsuke Kubozuka is suitably opaque, but also rather dull and flat, making it hard to understand, beyond the hunky exterior and superficial niceness, what Nagisa sees in him. Nonetheless, what he stands for in Nagisa’s heart is plain enough — the first love that will make death easier to bear.
Hiroki resists the temptation to jerk tears from this material, but he does film an extraordinary sequence in which Nagisa lives out an old fantasy — girl bus guide — while Satoshi looks on. All she has held in for so long — the memories, the longings and regrets — come pouring out, without a single false note. It’s an acting tour de force — and it looks as though Hiroki shot it all in one take. Nothing small about that, is there?