Cyborg She (2008)

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When hapless loner Jiro is met by a beautiful young woman on his birthday he cannot believe his luck. After a night of hijinks, the mysterious stranger tells him that she has travelled from the future and must now leave. A year later, the same woman walks back into his life and he discovers that she is a cyborg, sent back by his future self to protect him.

The premise is about as silly as they come, but the film-makers manage to weave an emotional story between the more outrageous comedy. As you might expect there are plenty of slapstick moments involving the robot, such as her malfunctioning after drinking alcohol, or slamming various men into walls when they try to touch her. Haruka Ayase gives a great central performance as the cyborg, perfectly capturing the robotic motions while managing to exude a degree of charm and humour. Along with Keisuke Koide, who plays the bumbling geek Jiro, they are a good comic partnership, with his ineptitude matched by her cold confidence and attempts to learn how to be a human. There are moments that go beyond ridiculous such as the cyborg running at impossible speeds, and as usual the time-travel paradoxes are best not to think about too hard. I was most surprised by the films tender moments, especially the scene where Jiro is taken back to his childhood. The film almost stops while we explore this past world and the music and direction create a poignant vignette of childhood memories. The main issue here is that the tone swings wildly from slapstick to sentimental, occasionally such a drastic change as to feel like a separate film. Writer and director Kwak Jae-yong  has cobbled together something bizarre and abstract, heavily influenced by science-fiction and romantic comedies that have gone before, that nevertheless is strangely enchanting. There are scenes reminiscent of Terminator and Star Wars, and the entire plot is a sort of mix-tape of greatest hits moments from other love stories. Some great special effects work, stunts and larger scale action sequences, make this an enjoyable watch. But throughout there is a clear focus on characters and story that is heartfelt.

This film surprised me with its quality as from the title (Japanese: My Girlfriend is a Cyborg) and premise, you might expect a cheap knockabout comedy, with gags about her not fitting in. While this is partly true, there are some genuinely amusing scenes and a real warmth to what they are attempting here. I feel as though the film was misnamed because at its heart it is a film about the past, rediscovering lost memories, love and loneliness, and a whole collection of things that aren’t quite captured in the comedy title. A good romantic comedy with science-fiction elements that is unexpectedly impactful in emotional content.

April Story (1998)

 

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Nireno Uzuki travels from Hokkaido to Tokyo to begin university. A lonely, confusing time for the young girl as she moves into her apartment, makes new friends, and learns to live by herself. Towards the end of the film we see her reason for travelling to a university so far from home. A boy who she is in love with is also attending that university.

The film is short and largely without major incidence. The director uses a lot of handheld shots and the acting is naturalistic, often seeming more like a documentary than a film. The score is similarly understated soft piano music, but the whole is a pleasant experience. It captures the feeling of being alone in a new place. Each of the scenes has something to say about the experrience of living alone, fears, dangers, melancholy, but also the joy.

A film more about feeling than action. Not a traditional love story, in fact we only find out about her romantic interest late in the film, but definitely worth a watch.

Norwegian Wood (2010)

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At University, Watanabe begins a tumultuous relationship with Naoko, whose ex-, and Watanabe’s friend, unexpectedly committed suicide while the three were at high-school. After Naoko withdraws to a spiritual retreat in the mountains, suffering some unknown psychological affliction, Watanabe embarks, haltingly, on another relationship with fellow student Midori. A poignant tale which touches on both the terror of pre-destination and the oft-times confused relationship between romantic and physical love.

The film depicts Watanabe’s journey to adulthood thoughtfully, lingering over a word or a look in silence. The use of metaphor is striking, with weather, from rushing winds to frozen winters, giving scenes a power beyond words. The acting too is passionate and sincere.

Capturing the feeling of helplessness, that time is moving unerringly forward and our fate’s dependence on others, that love and sex are sometimes incomparable forces, the film exudes a tragic beauty, being at once a warning to, and celebration of adolescence.
Based on a novel by Haruki Murakami.

The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu

 

Genji is born to the Japanese Emperor and his mistress. Being an illegitimate child, young Genji is not allowed to accede to the throne and is instead created head of his own ‘family’, and accorded the title Prince. The story follows the life and numerous romantic adventures of Prince Genji . Believed to be the world’s first novel, and one of the oldest existing examples of Japanese literature, this story is full of many interesting details pertaining to courtly life in the period described in the narrative. The story was written by Murasaki Shikibu, who was a member of the court of Empress Akiko. Vaunted, even in her own day, as a great writer, Shikibu has crafted here a timeless tale of romance and courtship. Prince Genji is very much a product of his time and station, as we see his neglect of his wife, and subsequent wooing of various ladies, essentially shrugged off as quite natural (after all Genji himself is a product of an affair). The book is surprisingly relevant in its discussions of what makes an ideal romantic partner, the potential pitfalls of being too jealous, too zealous, or too unfeeling in a relationship. The writer dissects human relationships and examines them with an anthropologist’s eye for detail, and proceeds to describe them with a poet’s sense of wonder.

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The book is not an easy read, and this is due to a number of factors. Due to the age and setting of the story, people unfamiliar with Japan and the Heian Period, might struggle with the various names, of places and royal and military ranks that pepper the story. Murasaki Shikibu was evidently writing this for people at the courts she served at, and that is evident in the easy way she relates events. The narrative is replete with numerous references to ancient Japanese and Chinese history, legends and proverbs. There are a few cultural differences that may confuse a modern reader. The book certainly doesn’t read like a dusty ‘history’ book, but there are points which might require some explanation or further study to fully appreciate. Once you understand what is happening though, there is a fun adventure story underneath.

I would definitely recommend this book to scholars of Japanese literature, as it offers an impressively detailed look at the life of the nobility of the period. To the casual reader, I would recommend it for the beautiful writing – including the numerous waza (short poems) throughout – and also for the story. This was written as entertainment, and the book certainly has enough intrigue in it to hold your interest. The episodic nature of the text also helps in this regard, as each romantic encounter can be enjoyed as its own story, tying in to the greater narrative of Genji’s life.

I read the abridged version of this story, rather than the lengthy 54 volume original. This version ends with Genji’s retirement, whereas I understand that the full text continues with the adventures of his son. One day, I might embark on that journey.