What does the audience want? What does it really want? The easy answer for producers has always been “more of what it wanted before.” Thus the sequel. Thus the studio assembly lines for genre product. But the audience is a fickle, restless beast. Sequels often tank. The beloved genres of yesteryear — the western, the samurai epic — become box-office poison.
In Japan, however, one formula for success has not changed since the silents — big tears equal big yen. Thus the ancient convention that love stories have unhappy endings, with one or both of the lovers often expiring in the last reel.
In the 1990s, however, this formula began to look creaky. Junya Sato tried to update it in 1992 with “Watashi o Daite Soshite Kiss Shite (Hug Me and Kiss Me)” by making the dying lover an AIDS victim (and a woman, to boot), but the audience stayed away.
Yoshimitsu Morita had better luck five years later with “Shitsurakuen (Lost Paradise)” by having his middle-aged lovers commit shinju (love suicide) — the creakiest convention of all — but his hit proved to be a one-off.
Isao Yukisada’s “Sekai no Chushin De Ai o Sakebu (Crying Out for Love at the Center of the World)” brings the formula up to date — by shamelessly hitting the oldest audience buttons of all. Its lovers are young, pure and doomed, while the setting, a picturesque seaside town, is light years away from Shibuya. Think a Sayuri Yoshinaga movie, circa 1965. So why is this film packing theaters, mostly with girls in their teens?
First, Kyoichi Katayama’s novel of the same title is popular with said girls. Second, Takao Osawa and Ko Shibasaki — two of the hottest TV and film stars of the moment — play the leads. Third, Isao Yukisada (“Go,” “Kyo no Dekigoto”) has the right commercial take on his story — trendily stylish enough to attract the core young audience, broad enough to cue even the inattentive that it’s time to pull out that hankie. In other words, “Sekai” can not only compete effectively on the big screen, but play well on the small one (cue a sigh of relief from backer TBS).
Yukisada, who got his start making off-beat little films about young love (“Seventh Anniversary,” “Open House”), still has an indie sensibility and an unforced sympathy for his characters. They may be cliches, but he creates intimate moments for them that have a feeling of immediacy and discovery. There’s a sense, rare with this sort of formulaic material, that we are glimpsing something precious and fleeting. Kids, more than the jaded industry types trying to pander to them, recognize that something and respond to it. Yukisada deserves his long box-office lines.
The story, by Yukisada and scriptwriters Yuji Sakamoto and Chihiro Ito, glides smoothly between the present and 1986, when the main events unfold. Sakutaro (Osawa), a businessman in his early 30s, is living on autopilot, in a slow, downward spiral — until his fiancee, Ritsuko (Shibasaki) ups and leaves him. The reason: an old cassette tape that prompts disturbing memories — and a trip to their source, the town in Shikoku where she and Sakutaro (boyhood nickname: “Saku”) grew up. Following after her, he begins to reminisce about his youth — and his love for a girl named Aki.
Switch to the summer of 1986, when Saku (Mirai Moriyama) and Aki (Masami Nagasawa) are second-year high-school students. Tall, athletic and vivacious, Aki is the very picture of a kenko bijin (healthy beauty) — and hopelessly out of reach for the all-too-average Saku. But Aki takes an interest in him (his clunker of a motor scooter is a draw), and Saku is soon in her thrall, though he would rather die than show it. They begin hanging out together, sending requests to an all-night radio show and listing their likes and dislikes (Aki, predictably, is a fan of “Roman Holiday,” Saku of “Enter the Dragon.”) Then they start exchanging audio diaries on cassette tape and become something more than pals. The culmination is a romantic (if chaste) night on an uninhabited island — and the revelation that Aki is desperately ill.
Saku, once just a moonstruck teenage boy hoping to get lucky, realizes that Aki needs him and that he will be there for her, no matter what. But he fails to fulfill her last request — and 17 years later is still agonizing about what might have been.
The story is less about Aki’s tragedy and more about the adult Saku’s attempts to come to terms with it. One by one, he listens to her old tapes and returns to a past he never really left.
As the older Saku, Osawa mostly keeps his performance where it belongs — inside his head — though his agonies verge on the overripe. Meanwhile, Shibasaki projects a mature statuesque beauty as the stoically suffering Ritsuko — a radical change from her spoiled, flirty teen in Yukisada’s romantic drama “Go” only three short years ago.
As the younger Saku, Moriyama makes little attempt to imitate Osawa’s performance — a wise choice, though he lapses into similar over-wroughtness. The film’s real find, however, is Nagasawa, who has the sort of fresh-scrubbed vitality that has been making Japanese males weak at the knees since Sayuri Yoshinaga patented it four decades ago. Her Aki makes Saku’s agonies seem, not only credible, but inevitable.
Our first look at her, running like a gazelle, smiling like an angel, tells us all we need to know about her fate. A Shikoku Juliet, her undoing is less her family (who barely put in an appearance), than that rosy glow. And her Romeo? Doomed not to an early death, but the torture of listening to her sweet voice on a moldering Sony Walkman. A new twist on genre convention — and yet another reason why “Sekai no Chushin De Ai o Sakebu” is not your mother’s four-hankie love story.