Okinawa and the other Ryukyu islands are to the rest of Japan somewhat like what Hawaii is to the mainland United States. Both are sun ‘n’ surf destinations for the multitudes, with local cultures that are perceived as exotically different, but not threateningly so. The natives speak your language, use your money and are mostly friendly enough. What’s not to like?

One main difference is their respective images in the dominant pop culture. “Baywatch Hawaii,” “Hawaii Five-O” and other Hollywood shows depict Hawaii as more glamorous and paradisical than the American norm. Even the criminals dress as though they are on a tropical vacation. You don’t see that in Cincinnati.

Okinawa, especially, has gone through a different sort of cinematic evolution. The horrific Battle of Okinawa, fought in the closing days of World War II, has inspired many a heart-wrenching film, including “Himeyuri no To (Tower of Lilies),” the 1953 Tadashi Imai weeper about girl students drafted as nurses, whose real-life counterparts died by the hundreds after immense suffering.

Director Yuji Nakae
Run Time 99 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens April 14, 2007

Yuji Nakae, a Kyoto native who has lived in Okinawa all his adult life, represents a new wave of Okinawan filmmakers who are more concerned with the Ryukyu of the present than the tragedies of the past.

In films like “Pineapple Tours” (1992), “Nabbie no Koi (Nabbie’s Love)” and “Hotel Hibiscus (2002)” Nakao presents the locals as pure-spirited, good-hearted folks who live their lives to natural rhythms, with the distinctive, rootsy sound of the sanshin — the Ryukyu three-stringed version of the shamisen — never far away. This is somewhat like the Hawaiian filmmakers who celebrate the local culture (hula, aloha spirit), while passing over certain local pathologies (poverty, drug addiction) in silence. Not that celebration is wrong — it’s just not the whole story.

Nakae’s latest film, “Koishikute (Loveable),” is more of the same, with the artlessness of the filmmaking matching the action on the screen. Based on the rise of the three-man pop band Begin to fame from their humble beginnings on Ishigaki Island, the film starts with the fateful reunion of two childhood friends — the perky Kanako (Yoshimi Yamanoha) and the nice-but-nebbishy Eijun (Shoto Aizato) — on the island of Ishigakijima.

Now in her first year of high school, Kanako has come to live with her grandmother (Tomi Taira), who runs a beauty parlor in town. Her big brother, Seiryo (Hoshi Ishida), a blunt, no-nonsense type who was probably bossing the neighborhood kids from kindergarten on, decides to form a band. He takes command of the drums, while drafting in Eijun to sing, Eijun’s nerdy buddy Hiroshi (Kenichi Oomine) to play keyboards and his own punkish pal Makoto (Hideaki Gibo) to play guitar.

He wants Kanako to sing as well, but she balks — she has not sung since her musician father pulled a disappearing act when she was 4. Meanwhile, her mother (Sumiko Yoseyama) runs a music pub, where she soulfully sings “What a Wonderful World” while Seiryo accompanies on piano.

The band, now called the “Sei-ryos,” practices in a cow pasture, to the bemusement of the nearby livestock. Kanako diligently learns karate kata, while helping her grandmother in the beauty parlor. Meanwhile, she and Eijun are becoming more than friends — not much more, but more. Then comes the big audition for the school festival — and the Seiryos are flummoxed by the musical talent on display. The judges prove to be stricter than the cows and the band flunks.

This is the pattern of many a zero-to-hero sports or music movie, including last year’s smash “Hula Girls.” But Nakae takes the story in a different direction: Rather than focus only on the band’s struggle for glory, he examines Seiryo and Kanako’s connection to their family, their island and a traditional musical culture distinctly different from mainstream Japan’s.

Fortunately, Nakae includes much music, old and new, influenced by this culture, including the title tune — Begin’s first hit, in 1990. Oddly, he also features tunes, such as the aforementioned Louis Armstrong standard and the 1960s smash “Koi no Kisetsu (Season of Love),” more calculated to appeal to Japanese baby boomers than Seiryo and Kanako’s generation.

The entire film strives to be, not just nostalgic, but folksy — as in deliberately cornball. The humor revolves around farts, cow patties and the plight of yokels in the big city. When the band, renamed Beginning, ends up in Tokyo, they have no idea how to use an automated station turnstile. Ho ho.

This creates a strange sense of dislocation — though ostensibly set in the present, “Koishikute” seems to be lost in a time warp, with teenage characters who have apparently never switched on a TV or radio, let alone a cell phone or computer.

It’s nice, I suppose, to think there are still parts of Japan that time has forgot. It’s not so nice, though, to portray the locals so rosily as earthy primitives. It’s not quite so simple, is it? Perhaps the real U.S. parallel to “Koishikute” is, not the Hollywood-in-Hawaii shows and films, but “Song of the South,” that 1946 paean to the Black American folkways of the antebellum South. I like “Zip-A-Dee-Doo-Dah” well enough, but I don’t share the film’s nostalgia for the happy slaves on the plantation. Maybe it’s time the Ryukyus got their own version of “Roots,” the iconic 1977 miniseries that blasted that sort of nostalgia to smithereens. But Nakae probably isn’t the man to film it.

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