‘Raiou (The Lightning Tree)’

Feudal romance avoids cliches

by Mark Schilling

When Ryuichi Hiroki had a big hit last year with “Yomei 1-kagetsu no Hanayome (April Bride),” a drama about a young woman’s struggle with terminal breast cancer, I was glad for him. In a directing career of two decades, he had never enjoyed this sort of commercial success and, unlike the hacks who serve up product to order, he actually deserved it.

Taking material that had “tear-jerker” written all over it, he made a film honest about the disease, beginning with its harsh emotional toll. Also, his heroine was not the usual pure-hearted martyr, but an ordinary woman who wanted very much to live. Finally, the visuals celebrated the beauty of her love — and the world she was about to leave — with a lyricism all the stronger for being understated.

Having said that, I prefer Hiroki’s earlier indie films, especially his 2003 masterpiece “Vibrator,” in which Shinobu Terajima’s lonely, neurotic writer bared her body and soul in a road trip with Nao Omori’s devious, but ultimately understanding, truck driver. Hiroki filmed his heroine’s journey of self discovery from the inside with sympathy, but no sentimentalism.

The sympathy is still evident in his new film “Raiou (The Lightning Tree),” but his story is a star-crossed romance aimed squarely, like “April Bride,” at the mass audience.

Raiou (The Lightning Tree)
Director Ryuichi Hiroki
Run Time 133 mins
Language Japanese

Based on a bestseller by Mari Ueza, “The Lightning Tree” is “Romeo and Juliet” transposed to feudal-era Japan, with a Juliet (Yu Aoi) who is a free-spirited child of nature and a Romeo who is a mentally ill young lord (Masaki Okada) living in a gilded cage. Once again, Hiroki does wonders with a story that cries out for cliches, though this is his first attempt at period drama. He doesn’t subvert genre formula so much as insist on the humanity of his two principals in every scene, even when the story is trying to turn them into types.

Once again he gets a career-peak performance from his female lead, this time Aoi. A popular actress/model with a “natural girl” image exploited in countless TV ads, Aoi may have been cast for her marketability, but she throws herself into the role totally, with no trace of vanity whatsoever. Her manager must have cringed as Hiroki shot Aoi crying her eyes out, with snot clinging to her hair and her freckles, minus make-up, on full display. But it’s a terrific take — and Hiroki was right to keep it.

The story: Narimichi (Okada), a young lord of the ruling Tokugawa clan, suffers from horrific nightmares, a symptom of spiritual malaise. Suffocated by his circumscribed life, he jumps at the suggestion of an earnest young retainer, Seta Sukejiro (Keisuke Koide), to see the tengu (long-nosed demon) guarding the mountains overlooking his native village of Seta. The “tengu,” however, is Rai (Aoi), a proud, bold girl who lives with her father (Saburo Tokito) in a forest hut — and makes it her mission to protect the mountains from intruders. She wears a mask to scare them (as well as disguise her sex) and shoots arrows to chase them away. Then one fine day Narimichi rides alone into her sights — and her challenge turns into confusion when he suddenly faints. She revives him, releases him — and he finds out later that she is Sukejiro’s sister, Yu, kidnapped as a baby 20 years ago.

Rai returns to the village as Yu, but, like Huck Finn, doesn’t cotton to being “civilized.” She does take a liking to Narimichi, whom she sees as an outsider like herself. Together they explore her mountains — and fall in love. Marriage, however, is an impossibility because of their difference in rank — a difference Yu refuses to acknowledge. “I want my lord,” she says at one point. But can he give up everything to have her?

Watching Yu riding a horse at full gallop with her hair flying or gazing at Narimichi with a big, wide grin and undisguised affection I saw her as existing more in our time than hers. I also realized, with a fresh clarity, how much Japanese feudal society was like an elaborate dance, in which a wrong foot was not only shameful, but possibly fatal. Unlike nearly every period drama heroine who ever existed, Yu barely knows the dance exists: The only steps she knows — or accepts — are her own.

Her tragedy is that her lord is finally more a troubled spirit than a free one. He can’t easily follow where she leads. His entire class, including his kindly old karo (chief retainer) (Akira Emoto), rises up to prevent him, as an obligation on which they will stake their lives. What chance does love have?

This may make “Raiou” sound old-fashionedly dark — which it is not. Somewhat overlong and overwrought, but not dark, not really. Aoi’s performance, with its energy and grit, keeps lighting up the screen.

The title tree? It’s an old, odd combination of a ginkgo tree that was split in two by lightning and a cherry tree that grew inside its shattered trunk. A symbol of life — and the beauty to which it gives birth — in the midst of charred destruction. Guess who ends up under it by the credit crawl? You’ll probably be wrong.