Nobuhiro Yamashita scored an international hit in 2005 with “Linda, Linda, Linda,” a comic drama about a schoolgirl band whose lead singer drops out just before a big school festival. When it was screened at the Udine Far East Film Festival last year, the audience whooped with laughter at its deadpan humor, cheered the rousing concert finale and, when Yamashita stood for his bows, gave him a 10-minute standing ovation. And at the dozens of festivals around the world where “Linda, Linda, Linda” screened that reaction was apparently fairly typical.
Logically, Yamashita should have taken his newfound international cred to a money-bags foreign producer to finance his new crowd-pleasing comedy. Instead he made “Matsugane Ransha Jiken (Matsugane Potshot Incident),” a quirky seriocomic mystery that featured a grown man forcing sex on a mentally disabled girl and a yakuza and his moll bullying a small-town loser. Not many belly laughs in that material, though the film had a few funny bits in the signature Yamashita style. “Matsugane” played the international festival circuit, but did not get anything like “Linda, Linda, Linda” ‘s rapturous reception.
Now Yamashita is back with “Tennen Kokkeko (A Gentle Breeze in the Village),” a seishun eiga (youth film) based on a girls’ manga by Fusako Kuramochi. Set in a remote area of Shimane Prefecture in western Japan, where children are disappearing and time seems to have stopped, the film has no slap-the-armrest gags whatsoever. Rather it is Yamashita’s gentle-spirited celebration of the sort of slow-paced, human-centered childhood and youth that may be familiar to generations past, but is becoming a rarity in today’s hyper, wired Japan, where teens source more friends online than in the flesh — and discard them as casually as last month’s fashions.
This tendency has long been present in Yamashita’s work — “Linda, Linda, Linda” and his 2003 slacker comedy “Ramblers” were both set in the boonies and unfolded in slomo — but in the new film he is channeling not absurdist masters Aki Kaurismaki and Jim Jarmusch, but Nobuhiko Obayashi, who has spent much of his long career celebrating the pure-hearted folks of his native Onomichi in unabashedly sentimental films. But Yamashita — whose default emotional setting is “dry” — rejects Obayashi’s sort of tear-jerking. Also, his talent for shaping and expanding on scenes, no matter how small or mundane, it still intact. There is little in the film that qualifies as heavy drama — there are no titanic fights, no tear-drenched partings — but there is also little Yamashita does not put to smart, sharp-eyed dramatic use.
His heroine is Soyo Migita (played by newcomer Kaho), who begins the film as one of six students in a combined primary and junior high school — and the only one in the second year of junior high. Then she gets a classmate, the rangy, good-looking Hiromi Osawa (Masaki Okada), a transfer student from Tokyo. This new arrival is greeted as a celebrity by the kids, including Soyo’s younger brother, Kotaro, but Soyo’s feelings are mixed.
Osawa may have loads of big-city cool, but when Soyo hands him a treat at lunchtime, he tells her offhandedly that it stinks of pee (which happens to be humiliatingly true — she had just been washing the wetted panties of a nervous first grader). Soon after, on an expedition to the beach with Kotaro and the other kids, she stumbles on a train track and, with a train approaching, is struggling frantically to free her sandal from a rail, when Osawa casually rescues her. How can she hate this guy now?
But her short-tempered dad (Koichi Sato) has an inexplicable loathing for Osawa’s divorced mom (Mari Ouchi), now working at the town’s barber shop, and tells Soyo not to see her son. Also, Osawa moves too fast for the skittish Soyo’s tastes. Holding hands? Well, OK. But a kiss? Not just yet. Soyo is not a prude, but she goes her own slightly offbeat way, in her own good time.
She is, we soon see, a social klutz, who can’t help offending her two closest pals — girls she has known all her life — by saying exactly what she thinks. She is also curious about Osawa and the world he represents, while being strongly tied to her hometown, backwater that it is.
In an ordinary seishun eiga, these various currents would build to a tempestuous life-changing choice for Soyo: Flee with Osawa to Tokyo, leaving everything she knows or watch him ride away on the train, carrying her dreams with him. Yamashita and scriptwriter Aya Watanabe (“Maison de Himiko,” “Josee, the Tiger and the Fish”) opt instead for a naturalistic middle way. Soyo and Osawa go to Tokyo all right — on a class trip, chaperoned by their nice-but-nerdy teacher. They have their first chaste kiss, and Soyo gets Osawa’s stylish jacket in exchange. (She’d long admired it, but couldn’t find anything like it in the town’s only department store.) A crisis does arrive, one faced by not only movie teens but million of kids around the country: where to go to high school? Will Osawa return to Tokyo or enter Soyo’s high school of choice — where the boys have to get an unbearably unfashionable buzz cut?
“Tennen Kokkeko” just seems to roll along, minus the machinations of plot, but all the while Yamashita is deepening our understanding of his characters, as he tells their story with unforced charm. And he is still Yamashita stylistically, adding bits of funny or insightful business to every shot, but with a fresh sensitivity to the beauty of his setting. Rural Shimane looks idyllically untouched and empty, with nary a phone pole or convenience store in sight.
Does this world really exist? Yamashita makes me want to believe it does. Will the world outside Japan care? Maybe not — seishun eiga of the celebratory sort rarely travel as well abroad as the hard-edged, society-in-collapse variety. But Yamashita has been an exception throughout his career, and Kaho’s performance as Soyo is immensely likable. Too bad she doesn’t play the guitar.