‘Suna Dokei’

Shaking up the usual youth film

by Mark Schilling

Japanese films based on manga (Japanese comics) are so common now that if I were a young Japanese writer ambitious for a big movie payday, I’d skip the scriptwriting classes and learn how to draw.

Manga movie adaptations usually try to stay faithful to the source material, and if the actors are over-caffeinated, it’s often because they’re doing their damnedest to imitate a cartoon character. Also, since popular manga can go on for thousands of pages, films based on them are typically crammed with characters and story lines to please the manga’s fans.

“Suna Dokei (Sands’ Chronicle)” is based on Hinako Ashihara’s eponymous comic, which ran from 2003 to 2006 and later became a TBS drama series, and the film covers a lot of narrative ground as it follows its heroine, Ann, from her teen years to adulthood.

Story-wise, “Suna Dokei” is a typical seishun eiga (“youth film”), from its heroine’s troubled family life and to her pure-hearted love for a sporty local guy. Structurally, however, director/scriptwriter Shunsuke Sato departs from the linear norm. In the film’s second half he scrambles its chronology, as well as the adult heroine’s waking reality and dream (or nightmare) life to reflect her confused, suicidal state of mind.

Suna Dokei
Director Shunsuke Sato
Run Time 121 minutes
Language Japanese

This experiment with form — a radical one for a mainstream Japanese film — is not completely successful. The constant shifts in time make it glaringly apparent that the teenage Ann (Kaho) and adult Ann (Nao Matsushita) do not resemble each other — the sort of disjunction most films smooth over by making only one transition from a character’s younger to older self.

Also, Sato is a fan of eloquent understatement; that is, using a significant glance or gesture to express thoughts and emotions a more conventional director would explain in dialogue or narration. This strategy often works well, but sometimes the message feels cryptic. Still, “Suna Dokei” is an absorbing and haunting, if challenging, change of genre pace.

Ann (Kaho), with her recently divorced mother (Naho Toda), travels from Tokyo to a rural village in Shimane Prefecture. They move in with Ann’s tart-tongued grandmother (Shiho Fujimura), and Ann soon becomes acquainted with Daigo (Sosuke Ikematsu), a bluff but good-natured boy who works part-time at a sake brewery. She also meets the standoffish but sensitive Fuji (Kenta Tsukada), who becomes Daigo’s rival for her affections, and Fuji’s bubbly younger sister Shika (Anri Okamoto), who becomes her best girlfriend.

Ann’s mother, distraught over her divorce, commits suicide. Ann, in a rage over her death, which she interprets as abandonment, throws an hourglass her mother had given her — and breaks it. Daigo repairs the hourglass and returns it to her, telling her he will never leave her. When Ann is in her third year of junior high, however, her long-lost father (Toru Kazama) takes her back to Tokyo.

Not easily discouraged, Fuji enters a Tokyo high school and invites Ann on an expedition to Harajuku that ends with a kiss. She is now confused. Is Fuji sincere? Are her feelings for Daigo based only on a memory? When she returns to Shimane for a summer visit, she tries to sort it all out.

Flash forward 10 years. Ann is engaged to be married, but when she attends a class reunion in Shimane and sees Daigo again, old emotions bubble to the surface.

So far, so genre typical. But as the adult Ann reflects on her past, including her mother’s suicide, and learns the truth about Daigo’s seemingly uncaring actions after she left Shimane, her carefully built world crumbles. She is still wracked with guilt about her mother’s death — feeling she could have prevented it — and falls into a downward, deadly spiral.

Kaho, all of 16, is a natural with a winning sincerity and real-girl gawkiness. Matsushita, as the older Ann, radiates a similar purity, but with darker shadings that are right for her past-haunted character. Physically, though, they don’t jibe — Matsushita is a classic beauty, Kaho an unconventional one.

Still, “Suna Dokei” has a power that comes from the darker reaches of the mind, where suicide can look like virtue. Is Sato channeling Hitchcock, who also had a thing about beauties with disturbed minds and difficult pasts — or did he just have a great manga to work from?