Last year Naoko Ogigami had a surprise hit with “Kamome Shokudo (Seagull Diner),” a film about three Japanese women who end up running a restaurant together in Helsinki. It was a surprise because stars Satomi Kobayashi and Masako Motai were hardly marquee names, while the plot offered little in the way of high drama. The heroine’s big moment came — mild spoiler alert — when her restaurant finally filled up. Nonetheless, the film had a charming setting, likable, quirky characters and shot after shot of scrumptious-looking food, including the heroine’s down-home specialty: onigiri (rice balls). Most of all, it told a story of personal realization that many in the audience could identify with — and dream about living themselves (in Chiba if not Helsinki).
Ogigami wisely resisted the temptation to make “Kamome Shokudo 2,” but her followup, “Megane (Glasses),” has many of the elements that made “Kamome” a success, including Kobayashi and Motai. This same-but-different formula is not new — the “Road” films of Bob Hope and Bing Crosby used it as well — but it is unusual for the Japanese film industry, which prefers safe sequels over chancy creative tangents.
The biggest departure in the new film is the character of Kobayashi’s heroine. In “Kamome” she was a striver in a foreign land, trying to make good against stiff odds. In “Megane” she escapes from a high-stress lifestyle to an unnamed Okinawa-like island, where she learns to chill like the natives. Ogigami gets laughs with this situation, but as in “Kamome” her main purpose is to create a possible miniature paradise — that is, another invitation for her fan-base to dream.
As the story progressed, however, I was reminded of George Orwell’s famous essay on Charles Dickens — and his observation that for Dickens, as for many Victorians, the ideal life was one in which “nothing ever happens, except the yearly childbirth.” Though modern-day Japanese, the inhabitants of Ogigami’s island are likewise devotees of idleness, whose entire existence revolves around mealtime, playtime and staring out to sea. The question of how the pin-neat inn where the heroine stays is maintained and how its well-stocked larder is supplied remain unanswered, save for the inn-master’s apparently magical skill with a fishing rod.
Ogigami holds up this life as a model for emulation — though it is a fantasy the way the life of the restaurant owner in “Kamome” was not. Also, in this age of rapid environmental destruction of even remote island paradises, I wondered at the natives’ utter complacency. Sitting on your bum sucking on kaki-gori (shaved ice) is not going to going to ensure your future fish supply, is it?
And though Ogigami gives us shot after tempting shot of crystalline tropical waters, no one in the entire film goes swimming, snorkeling or even wading. What a waste.
The first person we see in “Megane” is Sakura (Motai), who deboards an ancient prop plane one beautiful spring day on the aforementioned island and makes a beeline for a small beach house, smiling and bowing with elaborate politeness to all she meets on the way. She is the same blithely single middle-aged woman as the one she played in “Kamome,” but this time she has come not as a tourist, but to work at the beach house as a kaki-gori seller and at the nearby Hanada Inn as a maid.
Next comes Taeko (Kobayashi), who was on the same flight, but is a first-timer to the island. With a dubious look on her face, she drags her suitcase over the sand with one hand, while clutching the map to the Hamada Inn with the other. Arriving at her destination, she finds the smiling master, Yuji (Ken Mitsuishi), who greets her with an odd compliment: “You have talent — the talent to be here.” He whips up a delicious supper that Taeko devours with hungry eyes, but he casually wraps it up and, telling her she can find food in the fridge, walks out with it.
The strangeness continues: In the morning Taeko is awakened by Sakura’s polite-but-firm “ohayo gozaimasu (good morning),” delivered at her bedside. Then Yuji invites her to join him, Sakura and Haruna (Mikako Ichikawa), a geeky, blunt-speaking high-school teacher, for breakfast. A guest eating with the help — not done! Soon after, she happens upon Sakura at the beach, leading a group of locals in a cross between radio taiso (exercises of antique vintage broadcast daily on NHK radio) and moves apparently inspired by “The Rite of Spring” and “I’m a Little Teapot.” Yuji urges her to join in, but she flees instead — mixing with the natives in such an outre way is not her idea of a vacation.
The accumulating craziness prompts Taeko to move out, but worse is waiting for her at the island’s other inn, the misnamed Marine Palace. Fleeing, she finds her way back to the Hamada, with the provident aid of the unflappable Sakura. Taeko begins to realize that these folks are not so much mad as different — or, rather, indifferent to the ways of conventional society. Instead, they’ve made their own world, and Taeko decides to live in it. There isn’t much more to the story than that, though there is a lot more sucking of kaki-gori.
This go-with-the-flow message will no doubt resound with “Megane’ “s target audience — Taeko’s overworked urban sisters. But where are they going to find a Hamada Inn, not to mention Taeko’s endless vacation time? This movie is a bit of a sell, if you ask me. And when can I book my ticket to Okinawa?