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‘Little DJ’

Music when the lights go out in hospital tearjerker

by Mark Schilling

What is the hottest genre right now in Japanese film? J-Horror is pretty much dead, though horror as a genre is about as likely to die as Dracula. Anime is still mostly for kiddies and otaku (obsessives), with the massive exception of Studio Ghibli offerings. Blurring the line between animation and live action, 3-D digital could soon change that, though.

The hottest box-office genre — and the one least known by non-Japanese — is the tearjerker or, to be more specific, the melodrama about a dying teenager/child/dog, though adults are the tragic heroes of some films, such as the dead mother who returns temporarily to her grieving family in “Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu (Be With You)” or the middle-aged salaryman who succumbs to Alzheimer’s in “Ashita no Kioku (Memories of Tomorrow).”

After walking out of screening after screening with red eyes, I’ve come to dislike these films on principle. Most manipulate emotions instead of earn them — or is that only my own rationalization for being such an easy mark?

Koto Nagata’s “Little DJ” is so blatant in its hankie-wringing intent that, for once, I was able to keep the dam from bursting (trickling, yes; bursting, no). Other directors are similarly upfront, but overcome my defenses anyway, often with a quiet, reflective scene that suggests, rather than proclaims, the agony of a loss. Isao Yukisada’s “Closed Note” does the job with a shot of notebook leaves fluttering away on a bridge. Stone-faced only a moment before, I found myself choking up — beaten again.

Director and scriptwriter Nagata, however, is more obvious — or rather faithful to Tadashi Onitsuka’s best-selling novel, which is in turn based on a true story. She’s not untalented, striking the right sweet/sad chords for her target audience — the same girls who made the even more relentlessly formulaic “Koi Zora (Sky of Love)” such a smash. Subtlety, though, isn’t her strong suit — not that it’s required in a film like this, whose ending is implied from its first scene.

Her hero is Taro (Ryonosuke Kamiki), a 12-year-old into baseball and radio, especially “Music Express,” a song-request show. Sound quaint? But it is 1977 and a small town in Hokkaido, a more innocent, pure-hearted time and place, we are told. Taro, however, has a blood disease that lands him in the hospital where his aunt is a nurse. Rounds of tests, transfusions and injections sap his spirit, despite the kindness and dedication of his young doctor (Shigeyuki Sato) and the doc’s hospital-director father (Yoshio Harada).

The latter, a music buff who broadcasts classics over the hospital’s PA system, asks Taro to relieve him as DJ — and soon the boy is ensconced in the hospital director’s well-stocked library-cum-studio, spinning popular J-Pop tunes. The Candies, anyone?

He also becomes acquainted with Tamaki (Mayuko Fukuda), a girl he first calls “the mummy” because of her bandages and full body cast — she was injured in a traffic accident. He later changes his tune when she is revealed as a cute 13-year-old — for him, an older woman.

We can see what’s coming, can’t we? Young love buds and blooms. Meanwhile, Taro’s PA program (called, imitatively, “Sound Express”) becomes a hit with the staff and patients, including Tamaki, though Taro’s three adult roommates are not all enthralled. Inevitably, Tamaki heals and leaves, while Taro stays — and weakens. I won’t spoil the third act for you, though you can write it yourself if you’ve seen more than one Japanese hospital melodrama. Also, the film’s framing device — with a present-day Tamaki (Ryoko Hirosue) as a reminiscing radio producer — doesn’t telegraph the ending so much as announce it.

As Taro, Kamiki is simultaneously feisty and wispy — just what the part calls for. He looks like a fading memory, even when he’s slugging a base hit. As the young Tamaki, Fukuda strenuously grins her way through the film, save when she’s in the body cast. She also looks nothing like Hirosue, the former superidol who plays Tamaki as an adult. I doubt, though, that many in the audience, with hankies out from the opening credits, will notice or care. I, on the other hand, am swearing off The Candies forever.