When I see Japanese films set in the late 1960s and early ’70s, at the height of student protests, I always feel that something is off, while knowing that the “something off” is me.
At the time I was in Ann Arbor, Michigan, aka Counterculture Central for everything from brick-tossing battles with police to hippy bacchanalia with who-knows-what in the punch. Detroit poet John Sinclair’s call for revolution via “rock ‘n’ roll, dope and f—-ing in the streets” was our not-entirely ironic mantra.
By contrast, ’60s student types in films such as Yukinari Hanawa’s 2006 crime romance “First Love” (“Hatsu-koi”) or Nobuhiro Yamashita’s 2011 drama “My Back Pages” strike me as anachronistic, as if straight-arrow kids from a ’50s episode of “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet” had wandered into the drugged-out world of “Easy Rider.” But Hitoshi Yazaki’s “A Cappella” (“Mubanso”), a coming-of-age drama based on Mariko Koike’s semi-autobiographical novel, reminded me that, though students here were listening to The Rolling Stones, their heads were in a different place.
The film begins in 1969 with Kyoko (Riko Narumi), an idealistic senior at a girls’ high school in Sendai, joining with her pals Juri (Sawa Nimura) and Reiko (Hako Sakai) to protest the school’s fusty dress code. Stripping off their uniforms in class, the girls look righteously angry, but Kyoko feels like a copycat and a fake. Outwardly a rebel, inwardly she cares more about committing her poetic flights to her journal than battling the “system.”
Later, Kyoko is caught up in a violent spat between two radical student groups and retreats, shaken and bruised, to a nearby coffee shop named A Cappella, which plays baroque music. Here she finds Wataru (Sosuke Ikematsu) and Yunosuke (Takumi Saito), two college boys who had earlier made her acquaintance. Then Kyoko is left alone with Wataru, and the revolution suddenly feels less important than the mysterious guy by her side.
“A Cappella” tells a familiar story of an adolescent girl awakening to love, sex and life that — with some adjustments — could be set in present-day Japan or present-day almost anywhere. Even so, the film is admirably faithful to the atmosphere of the period. But Yazaki, who burst onto the international scene in 1991 with his brother-sister incest drama “March Comes in Like a Lion” (“Sangatsu no Lion”), adapts Koike’s novel more literally than lyrically, from Kyoko’s adolescent introspections to her hesitant progress toward sexual initiation.
But just as we are settling in for a long, familiar slog to adulthood, we get signs that Kyoko is heading into waters dark, deep and possibly dangerous. First, she learns from Yunosuke’s worldly wise girlfriend Emma (Nina Endo), that Wataru’s mother hung herself when he was a boy and that he and his older sister, Setsuko (Wakana Matsumoto), discovered her body. Then, to her shock, she sees Wataru walking arm-in-arm with the gorgeous Setsuko, looking more like a lover than a brother. Other disturbing revelations are yet to come.
A former child star with more than a decade of film and TV credits, Narumi can still convincingly play awkward adolescence and virginal innocence, but she also makes the transition to steamy bed scenes with cool aplomb. Even so, her chemistry with co-star Ikematsu — who has made a specialty of dodgy, hard-to-read characters — has less heat than the role seems to demand: They connect, but don’t truly combust.
There is a reason for this that, in the context of the film’s whole story arc, makes excellent sense. But waiting for a big revelatory climax is like watching a pot boil. Time crawls as the mind drifts. I was reflecting that I had once seen, if not done, all Sinclair was talking about. But the revolution, I’m glad to say, never arrived.