The other night I finished off yet another rather average Japanese TV drama which featured rising star Eita in a supporting role where he gets to deliver this little philosophical nutmeg on relationships and the term Su-ki-da (I Love You): “More than any other decorated word, it's hard to say those three letters; and more than any other word, it's what you have to say”. Su-ki-da hit Japanese cinemas a few weeks earlier than this TV drama aired, which is a good indication of how prolific the young actor is becoming, but it’s also an indication of how obsessed the Japanese are about the concept of repressed or unrealised love. To them there’s nothing more romantic in the world than the anguish of not being able to convey your feelings – or even better if your love is forbidden and doomed from the offset. Indeed forbidden love has played a part many successful dramas over the last ten years across Film, TV, and Anime. I myself have witnessed a wide variety of unmatched couples, some are simple fantasies: a film actress and a salaryman, an otaku and a beautiful older woman. Some are a bit dodgy: a teacher and a pupil, a pop superstar and a 16 yr old girl, and a kidnapper and his victim. The dodgiest of all though has to be the incest dramas: featuring brother and sister, mother and son, father and daughter.
Yup, the Japanese can be a twisted bunch, but maybe because of these extremes they also know how to deliver the most realistic and poignant love stories around. Minimalistic director Hiroshi Ishikawa has taken the voyeuristic fly-on-the-wall approach of his debut film: Tokyo Sora, and applied it to the romantic drama genre, exploring the unrealised love between a pair of teenagers and the adults that each would become. How their inability to express or deal with their emotions back in “the prime of youth” has led them down the road to a lonely adulthood.
In highschool, Yu Hirahara (Aoi Miyazaki) meets and falls in love with moody wannabe guitarist Yosuke Fuji (Eita). The couple often hang out near the floodgates of the local river, but Yosuke is uncomfortable dealing with the affections of Yu, he also seems to have more than a passing interest in her older sister. Eventually his inability to reciprocate Yu’s feelings results in the couple going their separate ways. 17 years later and 34 year old Yosuke (Hidetoshi Nishijima) works in the sales section of a record company, it’s a job which affords him little expression of his own musical tastes and has left him feeling completely downbeat about how his life has turned out. One day a woman with a guitar arrives to perform a piece of music on behalf of her music production company. After she’s done, she starts playing a ballad that Yosuke wrote back in highschool. He realises that this woman is Yu (Hiromi Nagasaku), their first meeting in 17 years.
This is the bit where I warn Western viewers that if you value such things as pace and a traditional narrative, then you might as well skip this review and move on to the next title because Hiroshi Ishikawa is a self-consciously arty director. His films can be frustratingly pretentious and he has a severe tendency to shoot scenes that linger, and linger, and linger, as if he has mountains of film to burn. Tokyo Sora for me was at times annoyingly slow, then at other times utterly beautiful – which in a crazy way proves Ishikawa knows how to capture the essence of day to day life. This was sort of the whole point with his debut film, but with Su-ki-da he has branched out a little by focussing mainly on two characters and weaving a loose but clear narrative. Ishikawa’s minimalistic approach invites comparisons to Hirokazu Koreeda: a director who touched upon the subject of unrealised love most effectively in his 1998 film After Life. Also like Koreeda, he’s one of a few contemporary Japanese directors who can take an ordinarily bland location - like an empty room or grassy embankment - and shoot it in a way that makes it look like a work of art.
Su-ki-da is a constantly beautiful film, with the visuals underscoring the emotions of its characters and driving the narrative forward just as effectively as the performances and the voiceover that accompanies them. The film is clearly split into two halves; the first is set during the development of Yu and Yosuke’s relationship in high school and is narrated by Yu. Ishikawa’s visual approach here tends to subjectively reflect the emotional state of the young girl – particularly his use of skyline shots. One stand out example is a scene set not long after they have become friends, which starts with a shot of an overcast sky as Yu walks towards the local floodgates to meet Yosuke. There they are sheltered from the rain, and covering them in the background is a clear sky-blue wall and railing. Another earlier scene has Yosuke styling his hair in the side mirror of a sky-blue car as Yu walks past and pokes fun at him. Just two moments with startling use of colour that adds to the stylish charm of the movie, and there are many more visual touches like them.
The 2nd half of the story, set in present day Tokyo and narrated by Yosuke, is more downbeat and much less bittersweet than the first half. Yosuke’s stuck in the lower rungs of an administrative job in the record industry and feels like he’s made all the wrong choices in his life, and the setting is predominantly at night in dark bars or his barren under-lit apartment – all echoing the characters gloomy outlook on life. Both the adult Yosuke and Yu have grown up to become lonely adults and just like the ballad that Yosuke inelegantly strums through most his teenage meetings with Yu, they have become incomplete. Yosuke’s inability to move all his stuff into his apartment signalises the character’s inability to accept change. The final act of the film is all about whether Yosuke will overcome his innate hesitations and embrace a life with Yu or not. Along the way, Ishikawa interjects some momentary meetings with various characters that work well (the drunken girl he takes back to his apartment to sober up), and some that really don’t bring a lot to the story (the would-be thief). One plot development near the end conforms to a standard cliché of Japanese romantic dramas and feels utterly out of place in Ishikawa’s film, but at least it is the only misjudgement in an otherwise nicely developed drama.
The performances from the four leads all elegantly support Ishikawa’s direction. I’ve seen Hideotshi Nishijima in various films and TV dramas and he has always struck me as a subtle actor (often when the script is mind-numbingly unsubtle), which means he’s pretty much perfectly cast as the repressed and depressed adult Yosuke. I’m not quite so familiar with Hiromi Nagasaku, but she impresses with a slightly playful and vulnerable performance. Eita isn’t exactly pushed playing the somewhat inert young Yosuke, but he stands around moodily enough. The standout performance of the film comes from Aoi Miyazaki, who is extremely expressive when conveying the emotional confusion and disappointment Yu goes through every time she gets close to Yosuke and he pushes her away. The scene when the couple share their first kiss – an awkward peck rather than full on Frenchie – is one long continuous take were the character Yu goes through a spectrum of emotions and Aoi Miyazaki’s face pretty much breaks your heart. It’s like watching a puppy get kicked in the head!
This is perhaps good imagery to end the review on. Su-ki-da isn’t going to be to everybody’s taste, but if you have the patience of a saint and prepared to mentally invest in seemingly pointless scenes that convey emotions through symbolism, then you will find much to appreciate in Hiroshi Ishikawa’s second feature.
PresentationThe r2j release of Su-ki-da comes packaged with an attractive 22-page booklet, a card music sheet of the main theme, and a fold-out paper map of the film’s locations.
Presented anamorphically at 1.78:1 Ishikawa has shot Su-ki-da with natural lighting, so most scenes appear underlit – particularly in the second half of the film. The transfer itself is very good, despite the dark appearance of the film brightness and contrast levels are excellent and shadow detail is strong. The colour scheme is also very muted, with the most couourful section of the film – the first half flashback – looking like it was mostly shot on overcast days and a fine mist lingering in the air. Despite this the colour scheme is bold, doesn’t bleed, and is free of chroma noise. The print itself is pristine and image detail is pretty good, although it’s not the sharpest film you’ll see this year. Unfortunately Edge Enhancement is present and noticeable in the first half of the film, which is really the only negative I can say about the transfer.
For audio a solitary Japanese DD2.0 track is provided, which is pretty much all a dialogue driven film like Su-ki-da needs. The audio clarity is very good and the dialogue is smooth and clean, free of distortion. There are only a handful of group scenes in the film, but those that are there exhibits good audio dynamics. There are moments when some incidental dialogue is hard to make out and background hum or hiss can be heard, but this is all down to the way the film was recorded. Ishikawa basically shoots every scene as nature intended which goes for the audio too.
Optional English and French subtitles are provided. The English subtitles have no spelling or grammatical errors that I can recall.
ExtrasUnsurprisingly for a r2j DVD, none of the extras feature English subtitles, so I will state up front that I’ll not be rating this section of the DVD. Instead I’ll just give you a brief rundown of what each option gives you, so you can navigate your way through the Japanese titles.
Ok, in the extras section you are confronted with 3 options, going from top to bottom they are: Footage From Su-ki-da Premieres, Scene Retrospectives with Director & Stars, and Theatrical Trailer. The last option is pretty self explanatory, but here is a rundown of the first two:
Footage From Su-ki-da Premieres: In this section you are confronted with a list of 5 option, again from top to bottom they are:
(1) 2005 New Montreal FilmFest Premiere (05min 40sec): This was the film’s first public unveiling on 23rd September 2005. With only Ishikawa and Hidetoshi Nishijima in attencance, the footage skims through Su-ki-da’s tenure through the Montreal Festival, from the initial press conference to the premiere showing and Questions & Answers session that Ishikawa and Nishijima host before the screening. English translators are on hand through these events, but their translations are edited out. The footage ends with Ishikawa receiving a Best Director award for the film, and his acceptance speech is in English. At the very end of this feature Festival Director Moritz de Hadeln tells us his reasons for choosing Ishikawa - in English. This is the only feature on the disc that features any signinficant English dialogue though.
(2) Japanese Film Premiere (07m 34s): 25th of February 2006 was the date of the film’s native premiere, Ishikawa and actors Hidetoshi Nishijima, Hiromi Nagasaku, and Aoi Miyazaki turned up to field a lengthy Q&A session before the screening. This feature is edited footage from that session.
(3) Another Japanese Premiere (06m 49s): Taken from another, more intimate screening on the 31st March 2006., the footage here consists of another Q&A session with Ishikawa, but this time he’s accompanied by Sayuri Oyamada. This is the only extra feature to include one of the supporting actors.
(4) 30th Hong Kong International Film Festival (08m: 08s): Recorded on April 31st 2006, we see Ishikawa, Nishijima, and Miyazaki talk through a press conference before cutting to the inevitable premiere screening and post Q&A session.
(5) Korean Film Premiere (08m 46s): Shot on 30th June 2006 and featuring Ishikawa, Nishijima, and Miyazaki in attendance we are once again treated to the double whammy of pre-screening press conference and post-screening Q&A session. I must warn viewers sensitive to strobe lighting that the press conference is constantly bombarded with camera flashes.
Scene Retrospectives with Director & Stars: Is a 14m 36s feature with what I assume is Ishikawa, Nishijima, and Miyazaki going through a couple of scenes in the script and retrospectively analysing them. Shame this one wasn’t subtitled.