Film / Reviews

'Makuko': Love, life and that same old E.T. story

by Mark Schilling

Contributing Writer

The “visitor from another planet” story is doable, even for an indie filmmaker with no budget. All you need are aliens who have assumed human forms, but don’t quite get the whole humanity thing. Two recent examples are Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s 2017 films “Foreboding” and “Before We Vanish,” in which aliens rob humans of their concepts of humanity (work, family, love), all without a single CG assist.

Still another is Keiko Tsuruoka’s coming-of-age fantasy “Makuko,” whose 11-year-old hero Satoshi (Hikaru Yamazaki) is befriended by a new transfer student. Taller than him by half a head and somehow exotic and intimidating, Kozue (the single-named Ninon) takes an intense interest in Satoshi, peering at him like an entomologist inspecting an unusual bug. Worse, she and her mother, a maid at the hot spring Satoshi’s mother manages in a mountain village, take up residence right next to the poor kid. No escape.

At first frozen into immobility by Kozue’s closeness and close attention — in her presence he thrusts his arms straight down like a doll without elbow joints — Satoshi gradually relaxes and opens up to her.

Makuko
Rating
Run Time 108 mins.
Language JAPANESE

If this were all, “Makuko,” which is based on Kanako Nishi’s 2016 novel, might be another sweet, offbeat tween romance. But early on Kozue makes a startling confession: She and her mom are aliens from “a planet near Saturn.” On her planet, she explains, death is unknown, but a population explosion has forced the inhabitants to abandon immortality — and they want know how to deal with human-like change, death included.

From this point the film acquires all-too-clearly labeled metaphorical baggage. Satoshi and Kozue are no longer two kids tossing leaves in the air, but mortal human and immortal alien expressing the bittersweet impermanence of existence: The leaves rise but they must also fall, you see. And if you don’t see, the film considerately repeats this life lesson over and over.

Another, more traditional metaphor involves the local Saisei Festival, in which papier-mache floats made by children are carried through the town and ceremoniously destroyed by adults at a riverbank. Once again the life-death theme gets an airing, this time with the addition of “rebirth,” the English meaning of saisei. And once again the connection to Kozue’s sojourn is made with heavy underlining, culminating with the actual bashing of a papier-mache Earth.

Subplots, including a suspicious fire at the hot springs and Satoshi’s disturbing encounter with the lover of his free-spirited cook father (Tsuyoshi Kusanagi), stir the dramatic pot, as well as being pressed into service of the central theme.

Meanwhile, Satoshi is slowly getting around to his first-ever “I love you,” but it turns out that Kozue has inspired that emotion in village inhabitants of both sexes and all ages. One fine day they descend en masse on the castle ruins that are Satoshi and Kozue’s favorite meeting place.

The obvious inspiration is the goodbye to the Mother Ship in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” but Tsuruoka, who also wrote the script, pastes her homage to the Steven Spielberg classic onto her climax rather than insinuate it in her story — and it fails to persuade.

But Satoshi gets another chance — no need to specify how. The movie and its audience are not so lucky. Hit rewind all you want: It’s still the same derivative, overly obvious “Makuko.”