In 1990, Shun Nakahara — a religion-studies major at the University of Tokyo who later became a porno director — released his first straight feature, “Sakura no Sono” (“The Cherry Orchard”). Based on an Akimi Yoshida manga, the film described the day a drama club at an exclusive girls’ school stages Anton Chekhov’s “The Cherry Orchard.”
Instead of hyping the action, “American Graffiti”-style (this is the night that changes everything!), Nakahara and scriptwriter Hiroaki Jinno kept it naturalistic and low key. There is a crisis — school authorities debate whether to cancel the play after one cast member is seen smoking in a coffee shop and another comes to school wearing a permanent in blatant violation of the rules — but it is less important than the swirling currents of Eros and angst. Nakahara filmed the girls from a discreet middle distance, like a knowing anthropologist observing sacred rites of passage.
The film was showered with awards — including best film, director and screenplay honors from the Kinema Junpo critics poll — but Nakahara’s career since has been patchy, with commercial work-for-hire (an episode in the “Tomie” horror series) interspersed with more personal films (the underrated “Ichigo no Kakera” ["Strawberry Chips"]).
His latest film, “Sakura no Sono” (“The Cherry Orchard — Blossoming”), is on the commercial end of the spectrum. Despite its title, the movie is less a remake of the 1990 film than a thorough reworking, from the the story to the stylistics, that targets a wider audience. In other words, not the cinephiles who saw the original, but the same teens who show up for manga-to-movie idol pics.
Accordingly, the story is more “let’s put on a play!” conventional, while the characters are easier to slot into typical manga/movie categories (“conflicted rebel loner,” “glamorous star athlete,” “repressed good girl”). Nakahara’s template seems to be such hits as “Waterboys” and “Swing Girls,” both of which tell inspiring stories set in high schools, with zero-to-hero narrative arcs, and feature casts of attractive newcomers, several of whom later went on to stardom.
The most likely to hit the big time in “Sakura no Sono” is Saki Fukuda, a big-eyed beauty who is a rising TV drama star. She plays Momo Yuki, the aforementioned rebel-loner type, who transfers to a prestigious girls’ school after giving up a budding career as a violinist. A third-year student, Momo feels she is just passing through and has little interest in the school’s complex web of relationships, rules and traditions. She soon runs afoul of Mayuko Akaboshi (Saki Terashima), the good-girl class representative, who takes offense at her flippant attitude and tells her so.
Poking around the school grounds when she should be in class, Momo discovers an old classroom building scheduled to be torn down and, inside, the former drama club room, complete with costumes and a copy of “The Cherry Orchard.”
The play, Momo learns, was once an annual school tradition, but a tragedy put an end to it a decade ago. She becomes determined to revive it and recruits her classmates as cast members, including Aoi Ogasawara (Anne), a champion high-jumper who is the school idol for her long legs, athletic talents and cool, mannish aura. Even Mayuko joins the cast, proving she is not a total priss (and acting on her attraction to Aoi).
Momo, however, has never directed a play and fumbles through the inevitable crises. When a former fellow violist turned rock-band guitarist (Tomo Yanagashita) suddenly shows up and offers her a vision of a less fettered life, she is tempted to ditch the whole project.
Then disaster strikes when the fearsome Takayama Sensei (Sumiko Fuji), the school’s head teacher, finds out about the play and shuts it down. Will Momo bail or buckle down and fight for the first time in her self-centered, unfocused young life?
Fukuda, in her first major film role, plays Momo’s bored, annoyed, fed-up side well enough, but asked to summon something deeper — be it screw-it-all anger or determination — she lacks conviction. That may have been an acting strategy of sorts, since Momo is less a hardcore rebel than a girl adrift, but it makes the character look unattractively wishy-washy. Perhaps Fukuda should have summoned her inner Sarah “pit bull” Palin.
Also, just when the drama club members seem to be coming into their own as actors (emoting their lines on an outdoor stage in one of the film’s emotional high points), an adult savior arrives and the entire tone of the film changes. Suddenly our heroines are back to square one and sent through a spartan training regime lifted from a dozen grit-through-to-glory Japanese films.
“Sakura no Sono,” however, does a good job of explaining why the play — or rather the club’s adaptation of it — is so appealing to the girls. With its impoverished aristocrats, romantic complications and final partings from childhood hearth and home, it comes across as pure Takarazuka (the famed all-female theater troupe known for its storm-tossed period plays). Also, through the play the girls are acting out their own departures — from school and youth.
Nakahara still has a keen sense for how adolescent girls behave away from the male gaze, from their friendships and rivalries to their same-sex crushes. In the new “Sakura no Sono,” however, everything is spelled out literally, so the occasional references to the first, more delicate film stand out — and remind us what we are missing.