Bridging the gap

A gentle reminder of cinema's golden years

by Mark Schilling

Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu

Rating: * * * * Director: John Williams Running time: 95 minutes Language: Japanese
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For decades, foreign directors have been going to Hollywood and making movies with American settings, stories and stars that American audiences have accepted as their own. Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times” and John Woo’s “Mission: Impossible 2” may reflect the backgrounds of their makers — be it the low comedy of the British music hall or the high-wire choreography of the Hong Kong action film — but few Americans have found these films “foreign” in their concept or execution.

Maho Ukai and Yoshie Minami in “Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu”

No Japanese filmmaker has successfully made this leap, though several have tried (and Takeshi Kitano, with his made-in-L.A. gang film “Brother,” is still trying). Japanese directors who set films in the United States or other overseas locales, but target them at domestic audiences, are often deaf to the inflections of foreign cultures, blind to the individuality of foreign peoples. Their versions of the American Southwest or Southeast Asia bear about as much relation to the real thing as beef curry rice does to the cuisine of Kerala.

Meanwhile, the film industry here has long been all but closed to non-Japanese entrants. The exceptions — mainly the Koreans who have emerged as directors and screenwriters in recent decades — usually come from families that have been in the country for two or more generations and are themselves “foreign” in only the color of their passport.

Maho Ukai and Tsutomu Niwa

The made-in-Japan films of Hollywood directors, on the other hand, seldom do more than skim the exotic surface, while, to Japanese audiences, their images of Japan are little better than caricatures, be they mindlessly entertaining (“You Only Live Twice”) or gratuitously offensive (“Black Rain”).

In his first feature, “Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu (Firefly Dreams),” set in a remote region of Aichi Prefecture and using only Japanese actors, British filmmaker John Williams has made this leap with greater agility and assurance than the usual outlander.

How did he succeed where so many have failed? For one thing, instead of parachuting in with a few guidebook phrases and holing up in his suite at the Okura, Williams took the trouble to actually learn the language and live among the Japanese — since 1989 to be precise.

For another, though he wrote his script in English, he made the Japanese translation sound as native as possible by having his Japanese staff check it and his actors woodshed it. For still another, instead of forcing his story of intergenerational conflict and reconciliation into a stereotypical mold or giving it a new millennial edge with splashy visuals, he used a naturalistic approach reminiscent of classic Japanese cinema (and, together with cinematographer Yoshinobu Hayano, created images of rural Aichi mountains and streams that recall the beauties of that cinema as well).

Watching “Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu” without the credits, I might have mistaken it for a film by a Japanese director, albeit one a decade or more older than the 38-year-old Williams. There are, however, telltale signs that it is not a family drama of the old school.

Though conventional enough in its storytelling and shot-making, “Utsukushii” departs from the typical commercial family drama of a generation ago in both its rejection of pervasive sentimentality and its refusal to exalt the everyday into a melodramatic ideal.

Also, unlike the many older Japanese filmmakers who explained plot and motivations so that even the salaryman nodding in the back row could get the point, Williams prefers the simple-but-right visual metaphor that says what needs to be said, with impact all the greater for its indirection.

The story is that of Naomi (Maho Ukai), a typical teenage girl of modern Nagoya, right down to her carroty hair, year-round tan and umbilically attached cellphone. After sullenly enduring dull classes with clueless teachers and fractious mealtimes with her quarreling parents, she comes alive at her favorite club, where she can engage in her two favorite activities — dancing and schmoozing with her friends.

Then, one day, Mom (Chie Miyajima) packs up and leaves to be with her lover. Not ready to deal with Naomi alone now that his marriage has collapsed, Dad (Atsushi Ono) packs her off to spend the summer working at a countryside inn run by his elder sister and her family. Predictably, Naomi hates being stuck in the sticks — she would rather be working on her attitude at the club than schlepping trays of food to drunken middle-aged men.

Seeing that the job isn’t working out, her aunt asks Naomi to look after Mrs. Koide (Yoshie Minami), an elderly relative who lives alone on a small farm and is slowly losing her memory to Alzheimer’s. Naomi readily agrees — she has fond memories of playing at Mrs. Koide’s as a girl — but she finds that the old woman has forgotten her existence. Still, she likes Mrs. Koide’s dignified but down-to-earth manner and the stories she tells about her past.

This frail old woman in a kimono was once a much sought after beauty who married her girlhood love and, after his death in World War II, became gossiped about for her romantic forays against social convention. She even took up the dubious profession of acting and made a film, “Hotaru no Tani (Valley of the Fireflies),” whose poster Naomi discovers in the old woman’s attic. The girl keeps coming back to learn more.

Meanwhile, she is having romantic adventures of her own with a liquor-store delivery boy (Tsutomu Niwa) who gives her rides on his motorbike and seduces her with his quick-witted repartee. “The ones with the clever tongues are the ones you have to watch,” warns Koide.

This episode draws the girl and old woman closer together as Naomi realizes that, despite their dif

ference in ages, they are two peas from the same wayward pod. Though the wounds of the heart never completely heal, Mrs. Koide’s steadying presence gives Naomi the strength to go on — and the girl loves her for it.

The film, however, is about more than this meeting across the gulf of age and values. Naomi’s real tests, including the ultimate ones of death and final separation, are still to come.

Williams’ casting of newcomer Ukai as Naomi is as perfect as it is unusual. Most Japanese directors with an eye on the box office would have chosen the latest perky, elfin embodiment of the teenage male ideal over the tall, chunky Ukai, who looks like every second girl walking out of Shibuya Station. But Ukai is credible as Naomi in her moodily rebellious mode, while expressing her inner life — and its growth — with nuance and assurance.

Another casting coup is Minami as Mrs. Koide. A veteran actress who worked with Ozu and Kurosawa, she gives the film a gloss of professionalism, while quietly abstaining from diva displays. Her performance is a reminder of the glories that were once Japanese cinema.

“Ichiban Utsukushii Natsu” is proof that today’s filmmakers can still cherish, understand and revive those glories, even if they happen to have been born in St. Albans instead of Sendai.