We’ve had a variety of inspirations for this year’s entries in the Japanese Film Festival – a novel (Feel the Wind), a manga (Solanin), a true story of calligraphy performance (Shodo Girls) and a 1960s Kon Ichikawa film (About Her Brother) – but Hanamizuki may be the first film based on a pop song. At least according to Asian Media Wiki, who state that the title is based on the 2004 You Hitoto pop song of the same name. One of the bigger productions for the Japanese film industry this year – with filming taking place in Hokkaido, Canada and New York – it has also been a box office hit in its native Japan. Released in August this year, Hanamizuki spent two weeks at the top position, knocking off Studio Ghibli’s The Borrower Arrietty and only defeated by Yukihiko Tsutsumi’s (20th Century Boys) highly anticipated Beck. Now thanks to the Japanese Film Festival, Australians get a chance to see this long before the majority of the world.
Canadian-born schoolgirl Saki (Yui Aragaki) lost her father to a terminal disease at a young age, and only has a flowering dogwood tree to remember him by. She is determined to get into a Tokyo university to study English, and her studies have become an all-consuming pastime. At least, that is, until she meets Gohei (Toma Ikuta), a student from the nearby fisheries high school who is determined to follow in the footsteps of his fisherman father. The two fall head-over-heels in love, but it is not meant to be: soon Saki must move from small-town Hokkaido to the big smoke of Tokyo, and Gohei is married to the sea. They attempt to have a long-distance relationship, but find their lives moving in very different directions. Yet this is not the end of the story.
The appeal for most fans of Japanese cinema is starlet Yui Aragaki, singer and actress on both the big and small screen. Hanamizuki sees this actress portray her character from a teenager up to the age of 28, marking one of the first times the youthful actress has played an adult character! Yet as earnest as she is in the role, reading her lines in both Japanese and English (the latter of which she studied to play this part), the strongest performance comes from Toma Ikuta. His pretty-boy looks (despite spending most of his life roughing it on a boat) notwithstanding, Ikuta brings a real emotional weight to a character that may have otherwise been just another boy from the wrong side of the tracks.
Hanamizuki is not going to be for all tastes, and the words “date movie” spring to mind almost immediately. Hanamizuki is a sweet, if not especially memorable, romance story that never truly distinguishes itself from the crowd. Director Doi Nobuhiro, coming largely from a television background, adds little flair to proceedings, nor does he have much of a voice in this fairly by-the-numbers production. Taking the production out to New York, Tokyo and Canada does add some breadth to the picture, although none of these locations (especially New York) are shot with any real beauty or intent. Ultimately, what s gained in breadth is lost in-depth, although fans of straight romance stories won’t care and have a packet of tissues ready to roll from the outset.
Already sold out (or close to it) in Sydney, if you haven’t thought about going along to Hanamizuki, you might want to consider getting in fast. Or heading to Melbourne next week.