Of Japanese movies about star-crossed young lovers there will never be an end. The mostly female audience never tires of them, decade after decade. The genre has hardly gone extinct in the West either, though fans now tend to like their romantic fantasies spiced with everything from moody vampire heartthrobs (“Twilight”) to splashy musical production numbers (“Glee”). Here they still like them straight, made with the age-old ingredients of fated partings and tragic deaths.
With all the opportunities for practice, local filmmakers have polished genre conventions to a fine sheen, nearly always working from a hit manga, novel or TV drama. The resulting products are as sure a bet as anything in show business.
But a media consortium led by Asmik Ace has gone a bold step farther in making “Bokura ga Ita (We Were There),” a romantic drama based on a megahit manga by Yuki Obata, into a two-part epic clocking in at nearly four hours total. Directed by Takahiro Miki, a music video maestro whose first feature was the 2010 romantic drama “Solanin,” the first part will be released on March 17, the second on April 21.
Two- and three-part Japanese films have racked up superlative box-office numbers in recent years, but most are in the sci-fi/action genres and appeal to both genders, so the producers of “We Were There” are taking a risk, especially in opening the two parts so close together. (It’s usual to space episodes of multipart films by at least six months.) I’m willing to bet, though, that their gamble will pay off big time.
For one thing, Part 1 methodically serves up audience-pleasing plot points, missing only a poetically agonizing terminal illness. (I will not say whether they are saving that for Part 2.) For another, the two leads, Toma Ikuta and Yuriko Yoshitaka, are both hot now, appearing in a multitude of TV dramas, films and — that truest indicator of mass popularity — ad campaigns.
That hardly anything about the entire enterprise is original will not stop the manga’s millions of fans from buying tickets; instead its familiarity will be one of its attractions. Also, Miki, working with scriptwriter Tomoko Yoshida, has created moment after poignant moment that will inspire many a sniffle and sigh, not to mention TV variety-show parodies.
We first see our heroine, Nanami Takahashi (Yoshitaka), as an adult returning to her hometown of Kushiro, Hokkaido, for a classmate’s wedding. There she reminisces about her first encounter with Motoharu Yano (Ikuta), the most popular boy in her second-year class in high school. Nanami thinks him an insufferable tease, until she experiences his gentler, lonelier side and falls fast and hard. Then his best pal, Takeuchi (Sosuke Takaoka), tells her that Yano is mourning the loss of his upperclassman girlfriend, Nana (Ayaka Komatsu), in a traffic accident. His air of noble suffering (at least in her mind) makes him even more attractive — and Nanami impulsively confesses her love to him.
To her relief and delight, he begins to reciprocate, as he realizes she is willing to accept (in theory anyway) his still strong, if conflicted, feelings for Nana, who had dumped him just before her untimely death. What Nanami doesn’t understand is that Yano’s nice, loyal buddy Takeuchi also has feelings for her.
This love quadrangle creates a fine mess that Part 1 does not completely resolve — since Part 2 would have no reason for being. There is a satisfactory climax, however, albeit one that many another seishun eiga (youth film) has used to draw the hankies out one last time.
Ikuta’s cool self-assurance, as though he brought his star persona with him directly from the dressing room, doesn’t make for a credible provincial schoolboy, but it does makes good dramatic sense. The big man on the film’s high school campus, as well as in Nanami’s romantic imagination, can hardly be a member of the awkward squad. At the same time, Ikuta gives us reasons for thinking that Yano is more than a narcissistic jerk, from his kindness to a vulnerable Nanami to the wounds he stoically bears from his traumatic loss.
Yoshitaka, who played the hyper robot otaku in “Robo-G” and the full-of-herself singleton in “Kigeki Konzen Tokkyu (Cannonball Wedlock),” again makes us wonder if she is going to be totally annoying. But she balances Nanami’s more irritating traits, such as insecurely flaring up at the slightest provocation, with a basically sweet, trusting nature. In other words, Nanami is hard to handle, but easy to like, especially for a sincere, upright guy like Takeuchi, who would leap in front a bus for her even though she only has eyes for Yano.
“We Were There” is slickly crafted wish fulfillment, full of portentous pop-lit dialogue little or nothing like what typical teenagers would actually say. But then, hardly anyone in “Gone With the Wind” spoke like a real Southerner and who, aside from a few unromantic critics, has ever really cared?