Above: the four women of Strawberry Shortcakes, from left to right, Ikewaki Chizuru, Nakagoshi Noriko, Nakamura Yûko, and Nananan Kiriko.
Although the headlines often lay claim to the more outrageous festival entries, one of the things the New York Asian Film Festival does best is import films that exist in the middle of an industry, neither stringent art-house fare nor B-level genre excess. Strawberry Shortcakes is one of those pleasures, a dignified and modestly scaled picture of four young women in Tokyo, each dejected in their own way. Whereas a more pointed film would attack the jobs they hold (prostitutes, secretaries, artist) or even the city itself as a source of their despondency, Strawberry Shortcakes, adapted from a comic by Nananan Kiriko (who also plays one of the four), accepts these things now as just another part of life. Tokyo hangs over the women with a noticeable, but routine ominousness, their jobs are exploitative but banal, their wishes heartfelt but common, their ails personally painful but unremarkable. In a word, the problems are everyday, and the film admits as much, but nevertheless lends the women, each on their own thread, the kind of respect and resoluteness that says such stories deserve attention and care.
Believe it or not, the film often actually seems like a Japanese version of Sex in the City, only with significantly less handholding. But more importantly than that, director Yazaki Hitoshi and screenwriter Inukai Kyoko refuse to let their characters sink to the void of dejection that hovers so close beneath the surface of the American show and rears its head much more honestly in Strawberry Shortcakes. Such desperation is acknowledged, but with the film's strangely calm and resolute vision of these women, there is always a sense of a slight upturn existing even at the darkest moments. This has less to do with the requisite resolution that the story seems to think is necessary to bring about by the end, and more about a shot by shot, scene by scene sensibility, an intangible but thoughtful thing that in its very depiction of unhappiness there exists the vague feeling that this must get better, and it will.
If such revelations sound small, it is because they are and the film is, but the opportunity to balance mainstream tackiness or meditated pretentious at a film festival with the subdued melodrama of everyday stories and sadnesses is one to be grasped. Already only a few films into the festival, Strawberry Shortcakes feels like the refreshing film that comes after screening after screening of festival fatigue—modest and human, oddly uplifting, and almost completely out of the range of the kind of films one prefers.