A Filmmaker Equally Comfortable With The Commercial And The Controversial

A filmmaker equally comfortable with the commercial and the controversialAt a time when many experienced directors are having trouble finding steady work and getting personal projects off the ground, Ryuichi Hiroki has somehow found a winning balance between making adaptations of manga and novels with popular young stars for the multiplexes, and smaller, more provocative projects with greater creative freedom.

There are other filmmakers who split their time between nationwide and niche releases, but Hiroki is one of the few whose distinctive touch is conspicuous even in his commercial works, which is no mean feat when you take into account the level of interference from stakeholders participating in the production committee system. His name is also a guarantee of a certain degree of quality in terms of dramatic and technical integrity, even when the top-billed talent and source material seem better suited to the indulgent simplicity of television.

Hiroki's mainstream romances tend to be overlooked by filmgoers and festivals with a justifiable aversion to the treacly cliches often found in conventional Japanese cinematic romances. However, his style of direction doesn't change according to the scale and orientation of a production, and his commercial works are just as worthy of consideration within the context of his filmography.

I'm reminded of a disturbing scene from “Yellow Elephant,” in which a petulant Aoi Miyazaki ends a disagreement with Osamu Mukai by repeatedly smashing his hand on a tap. It comes as quite a shock, as Miyazaki's character had been portrayed prior to that as a serene and cheerful innocent who leads an idyllic picture-postcard life and communes with nature, but in that moment we realize she is a great deal more emotionally disturbed than the innocuous premise has let on.

Her sudden psychotic episode is not explored further (at the end of the day, it's not that kind of movie), but such fleeting disruptions and diversions from the norm expose the idealized artifice and offer glimpses of deeper dimensions lying just beneath the surface of Hiroki's commercial films.

So far in my subtitling career, I've handled the English translations for three of them: “Yellow Elephant,” “Crying 100 Times: Every Teardrop Falls,” and “Her Granddaughter,” which opens in Japan on Feb. 14.

The latter deviates from the usual mass-market love story recipe of throwing together two sought-after young starlets by pairing 26-year-old Nana Eikura (“Library Wars,” and Hiroki's “April Bride” and “Nobody's Perfect”) with 52-year-old Etsushi Toyokawa (“The Great Yokai War,” and Hiroki's “It's Only Talk”).

As it's based on a manga by Keiko Nishi that was serialized in a monthly comic magazine aimed at women, there's an obvious element of wish-fulfillment fantasy in the predicament of its protagonist, Tsugumi, an urban professional who retreats to her late grandmother's home in the countryside after an abortive affair with a handsome married man.

Despite her vow to give up on men, she soon finds herself fending off the amorous but respectful attentions of Kaieda, a pushy but charming university professor several years her senior, who abruptly moves into the annex of the house.

His age and boorish expectations of being waited on hand and foot are off-putting enough, but the greatest obstacle in their faltering relationship is not the kind found in your usual garden-variety romance: Kaieda also happens to be an ex-lover of Tsugumi's late grandmother Towa, back when she taught textile dyeing and he was her student.

Hiroki charts the development of Tsugumi and Kaieda's interplay with an understated touch, keeping the melodrama to a pleasant minimum and saving the heavy artillery for the big storm-bound finale. Even an extended mid-film episode involving a neglected child manages to avoid degenerating into a cutesy or tear-jerking diversion, instead acting as a catalyst for closing the distance between the main characters, and as a device for revealing Kaieda's memories of abandonment in his own youth.

Eikura, a popular model before she moved into acting, proved she's more than capable of holding her own in a key role by bringing much-needed vitality to Shinji Aoyama's “Tokyo Park.” She dials down on the energy here, but exudes resigned melancholy and level-headed exasperation. Her Tsugumi is not a frail and damaged soul who needs a fatherly Prince Charming to sweep her off her feet, but a woman who has become aware of her own self-destructive tendencies, and is reluctant to expose herself emotionally to another man who places his own needs first.

Few other actors who would have been a better fit for the character of Kaieda than Toyokawa, who adds his usual charisma and sex appeal, but also shows glimpses of vulnerability and amusing awkwardness. There's a believably lived-in quality to his performance, in the way he saunters around the courtyard of the old house in wooden geta clogs, and nonchalantly lounges around inside like part of the furniture.

The supporting cast is also pitch perfect. The always reliable Sakura Ando makes the most of her limited screen time as Tsugumi's bullish and perceptive best friend, while Tomoya Maeno adds to his extensive resume of bumbling loser characters as a local politician who pines for Tsugumi. Veteran Toshie Negishi also generates laughs as Tsugumi's mother, who is all too eager to unload her mopey daughter on Kaieda.

Their occasional injections of humor, as well as Toyokawa's deadpan delivery of Kaieda's droll remarks, help to lighten the film's tone and balance out its low-key romantic backbone and heavier dramatic scenes at the end, making it one of Hiroki's most well-rounded and watchable commercial efforts.

“Her Granddaughter” will actually be his second feature to be released this year, after “Kabukicho Love Hotel” on Jan. 24.

I finally got a chance to meet the genial Hiroki when I interpreted for him and “Kabukicho Love Hotel” stars Atsuko Maeda and Kaho Minami at the film's Japanese premiere at Tokyo Filmex last November, and again on Jan. 8 at a special preview at the Foreign Correspondents' Club of Japan in Tokyo with Maeda and male lead Shota Sometani.

A record number of journalists and cameras were present, partly because of Sometani's New Year's Day announcement of his wedding to “Babel” and “Pacific Rim” actress Rinko Kikuchi, but in television terms, Maeda was the bigger draw.

The showbiz string-pullers backing the former “center” for the AKB48 idol group have enabled her to make a meteoric transition into acting for a murderer's row of critically acclaimed directors, and her comments at the Tokyo Filmex premiere dominated the subsequent media coverage. This and her prominence on the “Kabukicho Love Hotel” poster alongside Sometani were in direct contrast to the film's ensemble nature and the relatively small role she plays, although she acquits herself well.

Maeda is Saya, an ambitious aspiring musician who lives with her boyfriend Toru (Sometani). He can't bring himself to tell her about his firing from a swanky hotel, or his current job managing a seedy love hotel in the Kabukicho nightlife zone in Tokyo's Shinjuku Ward. When a porn video crew rents one of its floors for a shoot, he runs into his sister Miyu (Asuka Hinoi), who turns out to be the star performer. One of the hotel's cleaners, Suzuki (Kaho Minami), is actually hiding her lover Yasuo (Yutaka Matsushige), a fellow fugitive, in their apartment until the statute of limitations on their crime runs out in 38 hours time.

Then a cop (Aoba Kawai), indulging in an extramarital affair with her superior (Tomu Miyazaki), recognizes Suzuki at the hotel, and agonizes over whether she should keep it secret and protect her marriage, or go with her cop instincts and make the arrest at the expense of exposing her infidelity. In a different room, a sex trade scout (Shugo Oshinari) is entertaining a naïve young runaway (Miwako Wagatsuma) in order to break her in and sell her on, but begins to have second thoughts when he learns of her tragic personal history.

Another frequent hotel customer, South Korean expat Hena (Lee Eun-woo, who made a impression in Kim Ki-duk's “Moebius”), is working as a call girl to save up enough money to open up a boutique with her mother back home, unknown to her restaurant worker boyfriend Chongsu (Son Il-kwon, aka Roy from Korean boy band 5tion) who is running a shady sideline of his own.

Meanwhile, Saya's dream of a becoming a professional musician leads her to succumb to the lascivious advances of record company executive Takenaka (Nao Omori), but the love hotel they choose for sealing the deal is Toru's place of work.

That's a lot of plot strands to deal with, but they are intertwined and unraveled in a satisfying and easy-to-follow fashion by Hiroki and scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai (who shares a screenplay credit with his protege Futoshi Nakano). The duo cut their filmmaking teeth on the softcore “pink film” genre, and collaborated previously on two of Hiroki's most highly regarded works, “Vibrator” and “It's Only Talk.”

Considering their track record and the film's setting, sex is obviously an important element. One very steamy scene featuring Lee is slightly marred by “bokashi” (fogging), a common, clumsy and anachronistic form of Japanese censorship, which Hiroki said he was asked to add because the actress's gyrations were a little too convincing (a similarly distracting blur effect was applied to Rooney Mara's nether regions in the Japanese release of David Fincher's “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo”).

While its way of dealing with and depicting sex is more forthright than the comparatively chaste “Her Granddaughter,” the two films share a primary focus on verbal and emotional interrelations between men and women. Many of Hiroki's works revolve around a central pairing, and although “Kabukicho Love Hotel” is an ensemble piece with a large cast of characters, it is essentially comprised of numerous sequences involving dialogue between different binary configurations of its various male and female players.

On the sidelines of these exchanges are fragments of pointed social and political commentary. Sometimes the voice of the outspoken Arai is clearly detectable, as in Tohoku region refugee Miyu's somewhat didactic statements on the Great East Japan Earthquake and nuclear disaster in March 2011.

Other times, issues are raised visually but not expounded on, such as a scene in which Hena walks alongside a real-life anti-Korean demonstration in Tokyo's Shin-Okubo district, known as a “Korea town,” on the outskirts of Kabukicho. This is suggestive of Hiroki's more subtle approach, and his main motivation of capturing the zeitgeist of the area that he has observed up close over the years, ever since his days shooting pink films in its myriad love hotels.

The impending collapse and aftermath of Toru and Saya's mutual deceptions bookend the overall narrative, but the Suzuki-Yasuo and Hena-Chongsu storylines are the most substantial. It's especially rare to see foreign characters this fully realized and consummately performed in a Japanese production. The real stars though are Minami and Matsushige, whose charming middle-aged outlaws would easily justify their own spinoff.

On the whole, “Kabukicho Love Hotel” is one of Hiroki's most purely entertaining and satisfying films to date, as evidenced by its invitations to major overseas film festivals such as Toronto and Busan. “Her Granddaughter” may not have enjoyed the same amount of buzz overseas yet, but it is just as valid an example of his knack for orchestrating genuine and compelling human interaction on screen.