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July 01, 2010

One Million Yen Girl

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Hyakuman-en to nigamushi Onna
Yuki Tanada - 2008
Catchplay Home Entertainment Region 3 DVD

One Million Yen Girl sometimes seems almost as slight as Yu Aoi's reed thin frame. The film contrasts sharply with the kinds of Japanese films that have been more visible lately, neither based on a graphic novel, nor centered around a fantasy action character. A more appropriate comparison might be to an independent film such as Wendy and Lucy, another film by a female filmmaker, about a young, itinerant woman.

Aoi carries most of the film by herself as Suzuko, freshly released from prison. In a flashback, it is explained that her imprisonment was the result of an impulsive act, reacting to the cruelty of a male roommate. Criminal charges were based on the alleged loss of one million yen, about ten thousand dollars. The onus of having a criminal record puts the timorous Suzuko at odds with her family and former acquaintances. Suzuko decides to leave Tokyo to some of the more remote spots where she finds jobs, keeping them until she saves one million yen, then moving on to another location. Alternating with Suzuko's journey, is her young brother, Takuya, who tries to deal with his own status as the victim of school bullies.

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Suzuko protects herself by keeping emotional distance from the people she encounters, even from those who seem to accept her without judgement. Showing up at a beach resort, she reveals a natural talent for making shaved ice treats, content to work long hours behind the counter. At a small mountain town, Suzuko get a job at a peach orchard. Young and pretty, in a community of mostly older people, the city fathers attempt to make Suzuko a public symbol of the town in attempt to sell more peaches. Again, attempts to maintain anonymity are defeated.

While the subject of having outsider status is not unusual for Japanese films, what differentiates One Million Yen Girl is that the character is neither an artist, nor someone enforcing or breaking, the law. Suzuko is a person who has learned not to be trustful of other people, but is not comfortable with herself. For a person who seeks an existence with limited personal interaction, Suzuko oddly takes jobs dealing with the public, at the beach snack bar, and later at a home gardening store. The greatest threat to public exposure ironically comes when she is in the small mountain town, with plans to feature Suzuko on television as the town's "Peach Girl". This sequence is marked by gentle humor.

While there is no discussion regarding One Million Yen Girl, the most extensive interview in English with Yuki Tanada was conducted by Jasper Sharp. A brief conversation with Chris MaGee is also of interest. The film is also notable for being one of the first films with Yu Aoi in the starring role, rather than one of several leads, or part of an ensemble. Not yet 25, Aoi could still easily pass for a teenager. The role of Suzuko shares some similarities with other parts taken by Aoi of a young woman who only appears to be fragile, masking self-assurance and unbending determination.

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Posted by Peter Nellhaus at July 1, 2010 12:35 AM