Shunji Iwai was once Japan’s hottest young director following the smash success of “Love Letter,” a 1995 film about a woman who writes a letter to her dead lover — and gets a reply.

No, it wasn’t a film about vampires — but it did attract legions of young female fans enraptured by not only the impossibly romantic story, but by Iwai’s knack for capturing every tremor of emotion with his jittery camerawork and offbeat editing rhythms.

Iwai himself, with his pop-star good looks, was of course part of the package.

Director Takeshi Kobayashi
Run Time 120 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Jan. 15, 2010

But since “Hana and Alice,” a 2004 drama that focused perceptively, tenderly and humorously on the friendship of two teenage girls, Iwai has not directed a feature film, though he has produced several — as well as having made a documentary on director Kon Ichikawa in 2006 and contributed to the 2009 omnibus, “New York, I Love You.”

“Bandage,” the latest film Iwai has produced and scripted, is also his creation thematically and stylistically, though music producer Takeshi Kobayashi is credited as both director and composer. This was also the case with “Halfway,” a 2008 film about a troubled teen romance that Iwai produced and Eriko Kitagawa directed; it had Iwai’s signature touches, from its lyrical shotmaking to its deep identification with its flighty but stubborn heroine, played by Kii Kitano.

Kitano also stars in “Bandage,” again as a high school girl, but this time one whose coming-of-age ordeals unfold almost entirely off-campus, in the band scene of the early 1990s.

As hard as it may be to imagine now, when nearly all the pop music acts on television are groomed and packaged by big agencies, back then indie rock bands were commercially hot because of televised band talent contests that propelled the winners from obscurity to instant fame.

The band at the center of “Bandage,” called Lands, is on the verge of making it big when two friends — Asako (Kitano) and Miharu (Anne) — see them perform live at a club. The girls are enthralled, especially by moody lead singer Natsu (Jin Akanishi). When they are miraculously invited to a postconcert party, they are giddy with excitement — until the group’s no-nonsense manager, Yukari (Ayumi Ito), tells them to beat it after one drink.

As this scene indicates, “Bandage” is a more realistic look at the pop music scene than “Nana,” the similarly structured but cartoony 2005 hit based on a best-selling manga about two Nanas — one a glinty-eyed rock singer, the other a glittery-eyed country girl who becomes involved with the former Nana’s band.

Asako also becomes involved, but as a hard-working, much put-upon assistant to Yukari, who acknowledges her aptitude for the thankless job of managing a band, while remaining wary of her motives.

Asako’s only real ally, in fact, is the self-centered, if basically decent, Natsu, who stays friends with her even after failing to make her his latest sexual conquest. But his band mates, especially the acid-tongued keyboardist Arumi (Yuki Shibamoto), regard her with barely disguised contempt.

So why does she do it? Instead of spelling out her reasons in blazing capitals as a typical commercial film would do, “Bandage” leaves them as something of a mystery, even to Asako herself.

She keeps Natsu at arm’s length — not as a sexual gambit, but because she knows, instinctively, that giving in would short-circuit all her dreams, from the professional to the personal. At the same time, she is an idealist and a fan, who admires Natsu’s songwriting talent and hates seeing his work commercialized. But the group, Natsu included, is hungry for a hit, so they rework one of his songs with currently marketable sounds (ironically, Arumi, the “purist” of the group, makes the biggest contribution here) and the result — a catchy J-pop number — soars to the top of the charts.

Fame proves to be fleeting, however, and Asako has more hard lessons to learn about not only the music business but love.

All this may sound bleak — but the film also shows how the band trip can become so addictive, from the adrenaline rush of the shows to the off-duty pleasures, sexual and otherwise. Also, though Asako wears her emotions on her sleeve (or rather on Kitano’s mobile features), she is no frail reed. Instead, she keeps plugging away, even after repeated insults and setbacks, with a tenacity rare in a genre where heroines usually win — out because of their pure hearts, not their strong characters.

The various confrontations and reconciliations are a shade on the overwrought side, but the relationships and events remain firmly grounded in the actualities of a music scene that Iwai and Kobayashi, who also collaborated on Iwai’s 1996 hit SF drama “Swallowtail,” know inside out.

Kobayashi takes Natsu’s would-be hit song — a powerful acoustic number we hear only at the end of the film, and deftly turns it into a listenable but frothy J-pop tune that, even without the film behind it, could top the chart.

Finally, Akanishi, singer with the pop unit KAT-TUN, is the real rock star deal as Natsu, whose bubble of celebrity and self-regard seems less constructed than naturally grown, like moss on a rock.

The film though, belongs to Kitano, a tiny girl with a huge heart and talent, who makes most other teen idols look like grinning air-heads. But you don’t need to see “Bandage” to know the latter, do you?

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