Thursday, September 20, 2007

[Japanese Film Festival] How to Become Myself (あしたの私のつくり方 / Ashita No Watashi No Tsukurikata)

Let Me Tell You a Story

As this year's Japanese Film Festival Director-in-Attendance, Ichikawa Jun presented his latest movie, How to Become Myself, to the audience. The movie was produced in summer last year and was screened early this year in Japan. Ichikawa-san joked that given he's 60 years old next year, there may be some who will wonder why the movie touches on youth issues when the director himself is already so old! He also mentioned that we will see a lot of scenes with mobile phones and maybe he's not suitable to direct this kind of movie.

He believed that mobile phones are getting more popular in Japan and Japan does make a lot of the devices, but the main reason why he made this movie about young people is because he has a grand daughter of 4 years old, and he hopes that when she's 14 and watches the movie, if she gets cheered and encouraged, he will be happy. Delighted with the turnout for the movie, He revealed jovially that he felt tired at his age to be making movies about youth, and encouraged the audience to stay behind after the movie to share our views about it.


The latest offering by Ichikawa Jun reinforces my love and admiration for his movies. Having seen but just 4, I am tempted now to hunt down the others to continue the experience of movies that are lovely shot, and at a comfortable pace which doesn't seem to be in a hurry to tell a good story. I like how he weaves observations of humanity and brings them to the forefront of his movies, which at first glance, seem to be quite fluffy and a typical chick flick, which I will assure you this film is definitely not.

Based on a story by Kaori Mado, How to Become Myself touches base with what it means to understand oneself, and being very comfortable with it. To be honest, everyone plays different roles in different situations with different people encountered. I can be a brother, friend, soldier, employee, reviewer, son, and the list goes on, putting on different masks, being different persons, adopting various personae. With the advent of the Internet and anonymous profiles, what you can be, is limited only by your imagination. (And of course you've got perverts being totally something else altogether).

And in the many roles we play, how often do we stop and take stock - just who the heck am I? Who's the real me, and what's the "me" that I'm portraying for others to see and interact with? Bottomline is, are you being true to yourself and being honest about yourself with others? Or are you superficially role playing with nary an emotional attachment to the part? What I thought was neat was that the movie doesn't shove this thought down your throat, but rather played it out through the interaction between the leads. Subtlety is by far Ichikawa's strongest point in his movies (based on the 4 I've seen), and his pace of the movies allows you room enough to ponder as scenes transition and the narrative develops on screen.

Juri (Niko Narumi, you'll be amazed that she's only so young, but yet has the capability to take on a character that so layered and yet so subtle in her delivery) plays an ideal girl at home and in school, but this facade is quickly stripped away early in the movie, as we see her loathe her parent's bickering at home, while putting up a false front of a happy, supportive family to the outside world. In the movie, the spotlight is also shared by fellow classmate Hinako (Atsuko Maeda), a popular girl who in a twist of fate, becomes the victim of classroom politics and bullying. Mere acquaintances, they share a poignant conversation just after junior school graduation, before going their separate ways.

The story then fast forwards 2 years later, and Juri, out of curiousity, looks up and emails Hanako, who apparently doesn't seem to remember her, or their conversation. And thus begins a reintroduction and attempts to build a friendship between the two in what is probably one of the most layered stories I've experienced in recent times. It's almost like kueh-lapis, where each layer can be peeled apart and reveals another understanding at a different level. It tells of the story in three ways, through exchanges of email (more on this later), as the catalyst and fuel for creative writing, and of course, in the character's real lives. Juri and Hinako wear different masks to play different roles, consciously and subconsciously, and with each being a projection of their artificially created self, there's no denying just who's playing what role, and questions of whether they're relishing these roles are posed, and when do you know to stop and become yourself, truly?

Watching the narrative unfold was part of the fun, as techniques such as panel in panel, and split screens, are used to simultaneously present to the audience the different character's action / reaction at the same point in time. Not to mention that the shots are beautifully rendered, with text messages from mobile phones bringing to mind Eric Khoo's Be With Me. In true Ichikawa style, the pacing is deliberately slow, and the wonderful soundtrack comprises of eclectic pop tunes as well as quiet contemplative pieces, all of which I thought complimented the movie very well.

But what I really enjoyed when watching the movie, and how it connected with me, was the way it seemed like a dispenser of tips on love and the living of life. And this brings to mind the song Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen), which itself was based on an article written in the Chicago Tribune on 1st June 1997 by Mary Schmich titled "Advice, like youth, probably wasted on the young". I got the same feeling when reading the column (and re-reading it again) back in those days, listening to the song version of it, and now watching a series of events unfold on screen as one character projects her self onto another, as well as the aptly included commencement sequence. Sometimes things just click, and connects on a different level which appealed to me at least.

And now about that email exchange, I think it's prudent to bear in mind that the Japanese wireless telecommunications network is different from the GSM one that we're so used to. I've heard some puzzled expressions and comments about how it's possible to not know who is calling based on the Caller-ID, but I suppose that the Japanese network is already more highly advanced and developed than the GSM one, and sending an email through a phone is a piece of cake. So let's not confuse that with the sending of SMS, which obviously then this story, or how it panned out, wouldn't apply to places like ours. And yeah, I like their phones too, even though it's the girly model - there's something about the simplicity and minimalist look and feel about it (in the design, not features) that I'm impressed with.

How to Become Myself easily ranks amongst my favourite of Ichikawa Jun's movies to date, in addition to Tokyo Marigold. Highly recommended as it's a really good film all round!

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