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July 24, 2008


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Jun Ichikawa - 1990
Panorama Entertainment Region 3 DVD

Happy Birthday, Banana!

"I sat up a little and gaze out through the saltwater spray that covered the windows at the distant line of the shore. The familiar, well-loved beach zoomed closer and closer, like a movie sped up."

from Goodbye, Tsugumi by Banana Yoshimoto

I first knew about Japanese author Banana Yoshimoto about fifteen years ago. I was working at a bookstore and her first novel, Kitchen, was just out in English. For some reason, word spread between coworkers that this was a novel to read. Since then, Yoshimoto, along with Haruki Murakami, has been one of my favorite contemporary Japanese novelists. Little wonder then that I made a point of seeing Jun Ichikawa's film from the Yoshimoto novel as the filmmaker is best known for his film Tony Takitani, from a short story by Murakami. I have yet to read Murakami's short story, so I don't know what changes he made, but I question Ichikawa's changes to Yoshimoto's short novel.

The basic story is about the friendship between two cousins in their late teen years. Maria, who has grown up in a small, seaside resort town, has moved to Tokyo to attend college. Tsugumi, slightly younger, is described as having been "born weak", and lives in defiance of everyone based on the knowledge that she is destined to die prematurely. Tsugumi knows which buttons to push, and expresses herself with anger and sarcasm. Tsugumi also exposes her more vulnerable side when she meets a young man, Yoichi. Most of the novel and film takes place during Maria and Tsugumi's last summer together.

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The first half hour of the film stays fairly close to the spirit and letter of the novel. There is a visual joke while Maria describes how, in spite of her name, she is unlike her namesake saint. Ichikawa films a giant cross, actually a large crosswalk in Tokyo. There are also many shots of the sea, looking out to the horizon. During the credit sequence, we see Tsugumi tormented by a little boy who loves hitting Tsugumi with a fly swatter. While the boy is peering at a small pile of garbage, Tsugumi kicks him face down into the trash. The character of the boy was not in the novel, yet that one moment better captures how I imagined Tsugumi as Yoshimoto describes her.

It is after that first half hour that Ichikawa strays from Yoshimoto's novel. Two of the bigger alterations involve Yoichi's age and occupation. In the novel, he is about Tsugumi's age, and the son of a developer who is building a large hotel that will likely put the smaller inns run by people like Tsugumi's parents out of business. In the film, Yoichi is more mature, and working at a museum. The other major change, without spoiling the plot, involves a elaborate plot conducted by Tsugumi as revenge for the death of a dog.

I might have enjoyed Ichikawa's film better also had it not been hobbled by some badly translated subtitles. As it is, this second feature by Ichikawa has much of the same formal beauty as Tony Takitani, perhaps not to be unexpected by the former director of four hundred television commercials. Ichikawa repeats certain shots in different contexts so that cherry blossoms seen in full bloom are later seen as bare trees in winter. There is a wonderful crane shot of the camera moving from Maria as she emerges from a movie theater with her mother that cranes up to the theater marquee and dissolves into a wide shot of Tokyo. Too often, Ichikawa's film goes against how I read Yoshimoto's novel, choosing to be serious and sentimental while the novel is playful and caustic.

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Above is a frame from the film within the film that Maria and her mother watch in the beginning of Tsugumi. Based on the name of one of the characters in that film, and from what I could identify through the Internet Movie Database, I am thinking the excerpt in question is from Meshi, a film by Mikio Naruse, released in 1951. I am not absolutely certain, but I think I noticed Setsuko Hara in the cast. As I cannot read Kanji, maybe someone will identify what is written on the marquee.

In terms of Banana Yoshimoto and film, her debut novel, Kitchen was filmed twice. I have been hesitant about getting the second version, the only one with English subtitles, as it is several minutes shorter than the original release version. It may be worth noting that Yoshimoto has named Dario Argento as her favorite filmmaker, and Robert Aldrich's Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte as one of her favorite films.

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 24, 2008 12:41 AM


Thank you for writing about the difference between the novel and the film. I didn’t know about it. I have never read Yoshimoto’s novel, but I have seen KITCHEN (1997, Yim Ho, A-) and TSUGUMI (A-). Though I have never read Yoshimoto’s work, I guess some power of her novels may be lost in the films, because both films are not as powerful as they should be. I still love Jun Ichikawa’s films, though, especially DYING AT A HOSPITAL (1993).

Posted by: Celinejulie at July 29, 2008 09:19 AM