The last couple of years there's been a noticeable decline in Japanese quality drama features. Directors seem to prefer a safer, more fluffy approach compared to the stilted and silent dramas of yonder. Koikyokusei seems to float somewhere in between both worlds, but manages to remain on the right side of the fluff line. Mori's film is a welcome return to the world of glassy looks and silent conversations.
Koikyokusei might be Mori's first feature film, she's hardly a newcomer. Lauded photographer turned director (think Mika Ninagawa (Sakuran)), she's been around for almost 20 years now. Her professional background might not be as visible as in Ninagawa's first feature but if you look close enough you can still recognize the eye of a photographer here.
Mori's film is set during winter time amidst the idyllic landscapes of Hokkaido, quickly reminding me of Hou's Millennium Mambo and Shinkai's 5 Centimeters Per Second (though not actually in Hokkaido, the setting is quite similar). The film follows Natsuki who lives all by herself, stuck in her boring job and spending all her free time taking care of her mentally unstable brother. Her life is turned upside down when a former childhood friend, Sota, returns to make up for the lost time between them.
Somewhat reluctant at first, she can't help but give in to his charming aura. And when she finally believes there's light at the end of the tunnel, Sota decides to return to Tokyo, leaving their relationship hanging once again. Perplexed, Natsuki sets out to find why he flees from her for a second time, only to uncover the sad truth behind Sota's actions. Cue dramatic last half hour.
Visually Koikyokusei is a typical Japanese drama. Somewhat stilted, controlled camera work, some superb shots spread throughout and consistently attractive. The beautiful setting pretty much does the rest. Quite a few shots from above, but I guess this is where Mori's former job experience is taking over. It results in some very pretty imagery though, so you won't hear me complain about it.
As for the soundtrack, this is obviously the film's weak point. Whenever a dramatic climax approaches the film reaches to fill the background with some shady Japanese pop songs, most of them of reputable quality. A more subtle, toned down choice of music, how tried and tested that might be, would've worked a lot better here, putting more focus on the actors and cinematography. Hopefully something Mori will take into consideration when she starts work on her next film.
Acting is solid though, Toda and Kato have no trouble carrying the entire dramatic weight on their shoulders. Maybe Kato's looks bear a little too much resemblance to those of a dashing Tokyo popstar idol, but that's just a minor quirk and I guess that has more to do with commercial appeal than actual acting skills. The supporting cast is nice too, but as the film is heavily focused on its two main characters, there isn't too much room left for them to truly shine.
The third act of the film is definitely the best. While the first hour is effective and decent, the soundtrack keeps getting in the way of any real emotion. When the film nears its climax the impact of the music is lessened and the drama finally prevails, delivering some very touching scenes and some poignant moments.
The finale itself is stylish and respectful. Not what you call a happy ending but in true Japanese fashion the main characters find solace in their fate and find the strength to carry on. It's somewhat of an unrecognized cliché (some people only seem to think that happy endings are cliché), but when executed well it's very powerful indeed.
Koikyokusei is a beautiful little drama, only hampered by some bad musical choices. The acting is strong, the film is visually powerful (making the most of its lovely setting) and the drama is respectful and touching. Just about everything I wish for in a good Japanese drama. There is definitely still room for improvement, so let's hope Mori gets another chance to improve her skills.