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Romancing silences in two Japanese rom-coms

Japanese films’s Perfect World (left) and The 8-Year Engagement.

TWO films in the 2019 Eigasai or Japanese Film Festival share many things in common: wheelchairs and disabilities; the fleeting seasons; and that awesome use of silences all throughout the narrative. And we are not talking yet here of the charismatic and organic charm of the actors playing the leads in the films Perfect World (Pafekuto Warudu) and The 8-Year Engagement (8-nengoshi no Hanayome).

Perfect World is a story of a young woman who, after many years, meets again her first crush. Tsugumi Kawana presently works in an interior design firm and the man she admires is a first-class architect engaged in an office that is part of her network. Her associates find out she knows this cool, good-looking architect whose photo is the focus of interest of the ladies. She is, thus, compelled to attend the party where this architect, Itsuki Ayukawa, will also be attending.

Ayukawa recognizes Kawana and she knows her admiration—and love—for the handsome man is rekindled. At the end of the party, she, however, sees the man of her dreams as no longer that man who played basketball and who was admired by all, but a man with disability who needs assistance to move from where he is seated to a wheelchair. Despite this, their works bring them back together. Ayukawa, the man who earlier had opted to stay away from being involved, becomes interested in Kawana.

But what is a Japanese romance movie without sad moments threatening to banish once for all love and happiness from the lives of lovers. In any Japanese romance genre, the dark clouds are never far from the bright days of spring. And the season of spring itself points to us one of the eternal aesthetics of Japanese arts—the ephemeral.

In the middle of the blooming love affair, the parents of Kawana enter the picture. Kawana’s father and mother are not happy at all that their youngest child should bear the burden of taking care of a man who is strapped to a wheelchair. Then there is also the nurse of Ayukawa who seems to show a sense of entitlement with regards to the situation of the man she is caring for.

Are our lovers star-crossed? The stars do not figure in the narrative of Japanese romance movies. The seasons and the cherry blossoms do. After Kawana and Ayukawa separate, we find Kawana going back to the high school where it all began.

There, in front of the huge cherry blossom tree, with the flowers threatening to engulf the universe of anyone, she stands. In a room, the soft, pink petals drift. The power of the mono no aware—things are beautiful because they do not last—pervades the film, which makes us ask the question: Shall our lovers meet again?

As Ayukawa, Takanori Iwata satisfies the male pulchritude much admired and vetted in the world of Japanese cinema and popular culture. Tall and with soft features, and bangs that perpetually endow him with juvenile charm, Iwata is also a good actor. When he cries, the emotions make him the man all women in Japan and in the movie house that evening want to embrace, let go and forgive. It is that letting go that formulates the bittersweetness, which makes Japanese romance movies a genre on its own.

As Kawana, Hana Sugisaki has that face that is really not Japanese but one that commands attention. As a young actress, Sugisaki demonstrates restraint and gentle presence, two traits admirable in a culture that values quietude.

Perfect World is based on a manga series (Japanese comics) of the same name by Rie Aruga. The film is directed by Kenji Shibayama.

The 8-Year Engagement is a darker film compared to Perfect World. The story begins with the inauspicious meeting between a man and a woman. The man is Hisashi, a man lacking in social skills, and Mai, a young woman who would not hide her opinion about Hisashi. In the party, Hisashi does not talk and, after the drinking party, leaves the group. Mai runs after him and, thus, finds out why the young man was quiet in the party.

The candor that Mai shows Hisashi makes them a good team. They fall in love, get engaged and fix a date for their wedding with a planner. One day, Mai feels a throbbing pain in her head. She runs away from Hisashi and becomes violent. In the hospital, the doctors discover what is affecting Mai, a disease that causes brain inflammation and brings about psychosis. She goes into a coma. Hisashi continues to be with her in the hospital even when Mai’s parents asked him to move on and leave Mai to her real family. Hisashi, however, persists and the parents relent. Hisashi is there when Mai wakes up. Hisashi is there as Mai recovers slowly. And yet, Mai’s memory never comes back. Hisashi finally bids goodbye.

Shall our lovers see each other again?

Based on the biographical story of Hisashi Nakahara and Mai Nakahara, the story will end with how the real story ended. The narrative signposts seem to indicate a morbid, if not a sad, resolution to the plot.

Mai is played by Tao Tsuchiya. From a pretty young woman, the disease transforms her into a phantom of her original self. We believe her mother, played by the popular singer of the 1980s, Hiroko Yakushimaru, when she said that it is not her daughter there, referring to Mai all distraught and wild.

As Hisashi, Takeru Satoh downplays the magic and suave presence that made him Kenshin in Rurouni Kenshin and comes out as a credible car repairman. This leading man sure knows how to break down and cry, all naïve and vulnerable—thespic skills that seem required for Japanese love stories to fly. It is with his Hisashi that we cry our heart out.

The 8-Year Engagement is directed by Takahisa Zeze, who was known for his so-called pink films or soft-porn, in the 1990s.

Filipino film directors should watch these two films not to imitate the style of the filmmakers but to be amazed at the kind of editing employed. The two films actually move at a generously slow pace. This did not deter the audiences in the movie house last Sunday to savor the unfolding of the stories. And the silences in many scenes in the two films! Except for two couples who were ill-mannered, to say the least, you could hear the deep breathing, broken by hushed giggles and swooning from the girls and women (and boys and old men), as the cameras in the two films, respectively, do close-up shots of Takanori Iwata and Takeru Satoh. Cameras have never been so in love with faces of men as in these two films.

The Eigasai is ongoing until August 25 in Manila. It will screen at the University of the Philippines Film Institute from August 14 to 17, and at Gateway in Cubao from August 22 to 25. The festival is an annual offering of The Japan Foundation.

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