The first time I went to Kyoto, in the mid-1970s, I thought I was in the middle of the biggest school excursion in the country. Thousands of kids from all over Japan were milling about in shopping districts and on temple grounds, and a foreigner such as I was still a sight rare enough for dozens of them to ask for my autograph and venture a few words of English.
I also spotted maiko (apprentice geisha) in the Pontocho teahouse district, looking forbiddingly remote in their white makeup and colorful kimonos. I had the thrilling (and mistaken) impression I that was getting a rare glimpse of Old Japan.
As Tatsuo Kobayashi’s debut feature “Kantori Garu (Country Girl)” makes clear from the beginning, I was simply one in a never-ending procession of foreign visitors stumbling on or seeking out their maiko moment. Taking advantage of such ignorance in the film, four local high school boys instruct the tourists on this wonder — until they can distract them long enough to make off with their wallets.
Working from an original script by veteran Aya Watanabe, Kyoto native Kobayashi does not paint this quartet in the lurid colors of most Japanese delinquent movies. Instead his heroes are average kids, supremely bored with their cultural heritage but intensely interested in the ambitious plan of an elderly cafe owner (director Go Takamine) to build a modernistic “artists’ village.” They are ripping off foreigners to start their own live-music club in this complex, with the owner’s dubious support.
The plot, however, centers on the budding romance between one of the thieves, the tongue-tied Hayashi (Satoshi Hattori), and a rosy-cheeked maiko-in-training (Shoko Fujimura) whom he encounters in the course of his scam. Though the country girl of the title, she is not, he finds, another easy mark.
Beginning with her offbeat romantic drama “Joze to Tora to Sakana Tachi (“Josee, the Tiger and the Fish)” in 2003, Watanabe has preferred the sideways glance and evocative hint to the usual genre exposition, and “Country Girl” is no exception. Also, her characters speak like flesh-and-blood teenagers, meaning they are often blunt, sometimes cryptic — and never sentimental.
Meanwhile, Kobayashi, who cofinanced the film with Watanabe, avoids the typical tourist shots of Kyoto, opting instead for the more intimate gaze of the insider, from the cavernlike coffee shop where Hayashi and his pals hang out to the small, atmospheric bridge where he waits for his maiko — and tries to work up the courage to say hello.
The plot turns, including the threat of the handsome, smooth-talking Chiba (Yuta Kuba) to Hayashi’s romantic bliss, are not terribly original, but the aim is also not the standard one of throwing up a few obstacles to the happy ending. Instead, the film is a quietly effective object lesson on how perilous the gap between illusion and reality can be, especially for a high school boy as deluded about the object of his affection as any tourist.
Also, Kobayashi has allowed his cast of young unknowns to be their authentic Kyoto selves, so that even when their performances fall amateurishly flat, they impress as the genuine local article. Finally, the high-energy soundtrack of indie band SuiseiNoboAz is probably closer to the music the boys would like to feature at their fantasy club than the shamisen of Kyoto maiko stereotype.
What about the film’s maiko herself? We get clues as to her true adolescent self, but the door never opens to her world. That’s as it should be, I think. She enters a plane beyond her country girl beginnings, where even wised-up Kyoto boys, let alone wide-eyed foreigners, are seldom seen, save for outside looking in.