Review – Round Trip Heart (Romansu)

romance

Asian Pop-Up Cinema will close its third season next Sunday, December 4 (4:00pm at the Wilmette Theater), with the movie Round Trip Heart (ロマンス).

For those of you who can read Japanese, you may be curious about the discrepancy between the English and Japanese titles. I like the translation, although I was skeptical at first. The Japanese title, which is the transliteration of “romance,” does a lot more work establishing the setting for Japanese viewers: Hachiko Hoji (played by former AKB48 member Yuko Oshima) is an attendant on the Romancecar train that runs from Shinjuku to Hakone.

She lives a kind of sad life with a loser boyfriend and a loser coworker, but she seems to enjoy her job and does it well, until the day of the movie when she receives a letter from her estranged mother and a passenger named Yoichi Sakuraba (played by the extremely tall Koji Okura) tries to steal a snack from her cart.

The two of them are then wrapped up in a hunt for Hachiko’s mother that takes them all over Hakone, the site of Hachiko’s one family trip before her parents divorced.

The description on the Asian Pop-Up Cinema website calls the movie a romantic comedy, but I’d say it’s closer to a buddy flick. Other than a few coworkers, there are very few speaking roles that aren’t cameos, and the two characters are both linked by a kind of lingering dissatisfaction/depression that they can’t shake. The source of this feeling is very different for each of them, and the film does strong work playing with the audience’s sympathy for the characters. From this point of view, the English title does a lot of work—the viewer’s sympathy may make the round trip voyage.

The Japanese word that came to my mind while watching was 気分転換 (kibuntenkan, change of pace). We learn that Hachiko hasn’t seen her mother since graduating from high school and that Sakuraba is divorced himself and is a failed movie producer. Both could use a day off to run around the touristy sites in Hakone—to check out Odawara Castle, dip their feet in a foot bath, shop for new clothes. But the movie is careful not to fall into a kind of slide show “best of” Hakone. The characters drive the movie here.

My only complaint is that the movie may (or may not??) break the cardinal rule that fiction can begin with a coincidence but not end with one. I liked the way that the ending made me feel, but I can see how some might be disappointed.

And I should say that there is a very delicate touch on the part of director Yuki Tanada, who will be in attendance on Sunday. The final scene with Sakuraba could almost be a throwaway, but there’s a great attention being paid to both Sakuraba and the attention that he is paying. Very nice, and complemented by a long cut, which is technique used throughout the film.

Worth a watch if you have the time and can make it out to Wilmette!

Here’s a trailer if you want to see more. Japanese trailer:

English trailer:

And here’s a bonus YouTube video of the excellent and very karaoke-able song いい日旅立ち, which features in the movie:

Review – When The Curtain Rises (Maku ga agaru)

maku_ga_agaru_poster

Asian Pop-Up Cinema
Wilmette Theater
Sunday, October 9
2:00PM

For those of you in the Greater Chicagoland area, Asian Pop-Up Cinema is a great program to follow for Asian films in general and Japanese films in particular. Earlier this year I saw “Three Stories of Love,” which was an inspired movie that resulted from a series of acting workshops put on by director Ryosuke Hashiguchi.

Asian Pop-Up Cinema just started their third season, and next week they’ll be showing “When The Curtain Rises” (幕が上がる), which is kind of the opposite of “Three Stories of Love”: rather than the material being produced naturally through workshops, the idol group Momoiro Clover Z was drafted to act in an adaptation of the 2012 novel by Oriza Hirata.

The movie is a sweet if at times melodramatic treatment of a Japanese school movie: the group of girls from Fujigaoka High School go from a write-off drama club to a serious competitor at the prefectural competition. Protagonist Saori Takahashi is voted in as captain at the start of the film and is forced to negotiate her way through the emotions of her actors and lack of inspiration in order to put together a real performing group.

For me, as someone who has worked in Japanese schools, one of the most interesting aspects of the film was the treatment of crying. The movie starts with the school’s final club performances and a loss in the school competition that doesn’t seem to surprise anyone. Nevertheless, Mizoguchi-sensei, the group’s hapless coach, tries to work up the emotion to force himself to cry in his end-of-year message to the girls. The girls themselves don’t shed even a single tear.

Japanese students cry often. Most noticeably at their graduations, which are broadcast on the local news, and the tears are mostly those of joy, of appreciation, and maybe a few of a sadness for the upcoming departure, but they are not negative by any means. Viewers should watch to see if and when tears pop up again in the movie. The girls do find inspiration and sincerity in Yohioka-sensei, a new teacher who used to be a stage actor, who is inspired by the girls in turn.

“When The Curtain Rises” also does a great job of introducing Japanese spaces. Fujigaoka is a somewhat idyllic town at the foot of Mt. Fuji, and we see the town’s library, the school’s teacher’s lounge, the bus the kids ride into Tokyo on their summer trip, in addition to all the spaces in the school itself.

At 119 minutes, the movie feels like it would benefit from a trim, but some of the extra time is filled with clips from Japanese acting troupes, which seem to be real and inspired.

One other noticeable touch by either director Katsuyuki Motohiro, the screenwriter, or Hirata himself is the presence of only two male roles in the film: the women of the film are allowed to shine on their own. Mizoguchi-sensei adds slapstick comedy, and Takita-sensei, the Japanese teacher, adds serious artistic consideration with his solemn intonement of literary texts.

All in all, the movie in a sweet film and worth seeking out if you’re a fan of idol groups and Japanese pop music, interested in Japanese school culture, or interested in theater acting.