Above: Horikita Maki plays the terminally ill teenager in Love on Sunday 2: Last Words.
I can’t think of too many current directors of Hiroki Ryuichi’s stature and skill who work almost exclusively from scripts written by others. Is he a modern-day Jacques Tourneur, submitting to random collaboration in order to explore the dimensions of his personality? Or does he have the clout to work with writers to develop material that is meaningful to him? He was unknown on the international scene before his excellent 2003 Vibrator - but the IMDb gives him 44 directing credits, and 33 of them are before Vibrator. Many of these are allegedly “pink films,” soft-core pornography. At what point did he turn into an important filmmaker?
The two best Hiroki films I’ve seen, Vibrator and 2005’s Yawarakai seikatsu (It’s Only Talk), were written by Arai Haruhiko, another filmmaker with a long list of prior credits that aren’t familiar to me. Both these movies are adaptations of novels written by women (Akasaka Mari and Itoyama Akiko, respectively), and are strongly centered on their female protagonists.
The New York Asian Film Festival just screened two more Hiroki movies, Koi suru nichiyobi (Love on Sunday) (2006) and Koi suru nichiyobi watashi, Koi shita (Love on Sunday 2: Last Words) (2007). Despite the titular connection, the films do not share characters or have similar plots. But they are both shot on video, and deal with the emotional lives of teenagers. Both have soundtracks peppered with sentimental pop songs, presumably part of the series’ mandate. And, as with the other Hiroki films I’ve seen, both stories are told from a female perspective. The writers (Izumi Yoshihiro and Watanabe Chiho, respectively) seem to be relative newcomers, with only a few credits each.
The Love on Sunday films seem to me to have serious weaknesses on the scenario level, but they are beautifully directed. My guess is that Hiroki has enough prestige to exercise some control over his scripts, in which case I’d opine that his dramaturgical instincts aren’t impeccable.
But Hiroki is second to none in his ability to create a bemused, drifting ambiance to amplify his characters’ philosophical melancholy. Koi suru nichiyobi meanders around a small town at the end of the school year, bathed in golden-hour light and mysteriously underpopulated: an idyllic dream of last days and life changes. In their wanderings, Hiroki’s characters move between the foreground and background of calm long shots, mapping out the space of receding alleys or approaching the entry points to looming buildings. Koi shita is likewise keyed to the misty atmosphere of a beach town, and likewise fuses the portentous brooding of its main character to the camera’s lucid exploration of locations. The films’ most stunning moments generally have only a loose connection to plot – like the scene in Koi shita where the heroine wakes up alone in her friend’s house and walks around its windowed perimeter, absorbing the muted morning sunlight and the ocean-adjacent sounds of outdoors. For all their differences, Hiroki’s projects always seem to revolve around characters who withhold information about their emotional crises, and the exploration of space in his movies is invested with the romanticism of their unexpressed longing and pain.
Hiroki’s style suggests greatness: any few minutes of any of his movies gets me in the mood for a masterpiece. If the Love on Sunday films are a bit disappointing, it’s because the films’ inchoate emotionality is ultimately defined by unsatisfactory plot structures. Koi suru nichiyobi is built around an improbable love quadrangle that generates farcical plot twists at the expense of character, and finally arrives at romantic union by ignoring rather than resolving obstacles. Koi shita, after a pathos-laden setup, sends its tearjerking protagonist out on a mysterious mission – only to arrive at the sob-fest that it might as well have staged in the first five minutes. If Koi suru nichiyobi has an edge over the later film, it’s because it resolves its plot early and returns to the ambient rhythms of concealed sadness for a long, visually expressive coda. Both films are required viewing for their dazzling display of directorial skill – but they leave unresolved the question of whether Hiroki is a major or minor talent.