Film / Reviews

'Ballad: Namonaki Koi no Uta'

Yamazaki blasts the past with stunning CGI

by Mark Schilling

Takashi Yamazaki was known primarily as a computer-graphics whiz when he directed the ensemble drama “Always Sanchome no Yuhi” (“Always: Sunset on Third Street,” 2005). True to form, the recreation of 1950s Tokyo by Yamazaki’s team at the Shirogumi effects house was hyper-realistically detailed, while suffused with a golden-glow nostalgia for a simpler time.

The real discovery for me, though, were the performances Yamazaki drew from his young actors, particularly star Kenta Suga. As Junnosuke, a street kid who becomes the ward of failed novelist Chagawa (Hidetaka Yoshioka), Suga did not try to charm the audience into submission — the favored strategy of nearly every local child actor. Instead he played his dirt-smudged character with a combination of raw innocence and true grit that made him simultaneously a throwback and a standout.

In his new samurai period film, “Ballad Namonaki Koi no Uta” (“Ballad: A Song Without Love”), Takahashi again focuses on a child character, this time a modern-day boy named Shinichi (Akashi Takei), with a story inspired by the 2002 entry in the long-running “Crayon Shin-Chan” feature animation series. Average-kid Shinichi, however, is little like the anime Shin-Chan — a mischief-making, dirty-minded kindergartner who is Bart Simpson’s Japanese cousin.

Ballad: Namonaki Koi no Uta
Director Takashi Yamazaki
Run Time 132 minutes
Language Japanese

Also, rather than recreate “Crayon” ‘s crude-but-cute style, Takahashi has conjured up a vividly realized past world, in which the CGI is largely invisible, while focusing on the common humanity of his characters, minus much of the usual cinematic baggage. One of his models was Akira Kurosawa, whose best samurai films always seemed to be rediscovering the genre and whose characters were comprehensible to everyone from kids to foreign critics (some of whom rather disdained Kurosawa for this clarity, while championing the more oblique Ozu).

Watching “Ballad,” I was also reminded of the late, not-as-great John Hughes, who had a talent for not only making his kids and adolescents real to people of similar age sitting in the audience but also for imagining the film through their eyes. “Home Alone” (1990) is a tale of primal terror and fantastic derring-do that could have been cooked up by its 8-year-old hero.

“Ballad” begins with Shinichi’s recurring dream of a beautiful princess by a pond. Meanwhile, in his waking life, he escapes a quarrel between his career woman mom (Yui Natsukawa) and photographer dad (Michitaka Tsutsui) and later, when bullies harass a girl he likes, he slinks away instead of defending her. Then, after finding a mysterious old letter buried next to an ancient tree, he nods off — and wakes up in 1574.

Despite his surprise, Shinichi quickly and accidentally saves the life of Ijiri Matabei (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), a fierce-eyed, but kindly samurai general, who escorts him to his clan’s castle. There he meets the princess of his dreams — Ren (Yui Aragaki), the independent- minded daughter of the clan lord (Atsuo Nakamura). Shinichi also impresses the locals with his mountain bike and cell-phone camera — and confesses to Matabei that he is from the future.

Before Matabei can help Shinichi return to his own time, Okurai (Takao Osawa), a powerful warlord, descends on the castle and brusquely asks for the hand of Ren in marriage. Though in love with Matabei, Ren agrees, since a martial alliance with Okurai will be of benefit to her clan. Soon after, though, she changes her mind and follows her heart. Not used to being dumped, the enraged Okurai decides to rub her castle and clan off the map.

The ensuing battle is staged with the sort of CGI-assisted spectacle — from swarms of arrows flying through the air to hand-tossed bombs exploding on the castle grounds — that Kurosawa could have only imagined. At the same time, the mayhem is not graphically and disturbingly bloody; instead it’s of the sort that stirs the imaginations of small boys: warriors thrusting, parrying and bellowing with manly courage, vigor — and enjoyment.

Shinichi is more spectator than actor in all this, while being better-behaved — or rather more cowed — than his obnoxious, pranksterish cartoon model. Kids looking for vicarious thrills will be disappointed, as will Shin-chan fans looking for a few laughs.

Takashi tries to open tears ducts in the usual way of dramas about star-crossed love, with the added pathos of Shinichi’s attachment to Matabei and Ren — and his being only a visitor to their world. Once again, the cast rises to the melodramatic occasion, especially Yui Aragaki as Ren, channeling Misa Uehara’s flashing-eyed Princess Yuki in Kurosawa’s “Kakushi Toride no San-Akunin” (“The Hidden Fortress,” 1958).

The tears, however, don’t flow in the hoped-for quantities, since the plot gears designed to wring them are too well-worn and exposed. But I liked the way the past meets the future in “Ballad” — with lively curiosity, but otherwise not a lot of fuss. And, of course, all the samurai want their pictures taken.