Naoko Ogigami has not followed the traditional path to filmmaking success. After a less than fruitful stint in the States in USC’s film program, she returned to Japan to make feature films, and found an industry that was less than welcoming. That she got her first film made at all is an achievement, but “Barber Yoshino” established her voice as a writer and editor with a distinct voice. Her penchant for telling character-driven stories set in specific social milieus continued through her underrated high school haiku team comedy “Love is 5-7-5!” (“Koi Wa Go-Shichi-Go!”) and hit an unexpected commercial peak with “Seagull Diner” (“Kamome Shokudo”). That film’s surprise popularity seems to have emboldened Ogigami to tell an even quirkier story with even less overt commercial appeal.
“Megane” (“Glasses”) follows the story of how Taeko (Satomi Kobayashi, one of several “Kamome” cast members who show up here) goes on vacation to a quaint Japanese island off of Okinawa and encounters people, places and things that are completely foreign to her. To call this collection of island dwellers eccentric is an understatement: Sakura (Masako Motai) runs a shave ice stand, but accepts no money for her sweet treats; Haruna (Mikako Ichikawa), a schoolteacher, takes passive aggression to a profound level; Yuji the innkeeper (Ken Mitsuishi) run a hotel with a sign the size of an index card (“If the sign was any bigger, it would attract more customers”) and eschews the offering to his guests of any of the traditional hotel amenities. Taeko is left to navigate this strange, quirky landscape not unlike Lewis Carroll’s Alice: she wanders from one strange situation to another, making friends and learning the island’s non-logical logic along the way. She may also finally discover what “twilighting” is… or maybe she knew all along.
Having just seen a screening of “Thunderfish (Raigyo)”, I was struck by the similarities between the two. Both feature a protagonist visiting an island with peculiar practices and an insular community, both of which cater to tourists in a backhanded sort of way. It wouldn’t take much to push Taeko’s tale into the supernatural mystery of “Thunderfish”, which is a credit to Ogigami’s work. She wrote and directed a movie with no easy answers—in fact, no answers at all. There’s little conflict until Taeko’s smitten student Yomogi (Ryo Kase) shows up on the island unannounced, but even then the drama is limited to some calmly vague discussions between the two. This is not a film for anyone looking for high drama or action. “Megane” makes “Seagull Diner” look like a Bourne film. In fact, how "Megane" looks is one of its more obvious charms. The beaches and fields and forests hum with color, and many shots look like saturated paintings of some idealized island. The film is also a treat for foodies: Much of the action, such as it is, takes place over the course of several meals, and each is more tempting than the last. I pity the viewer who goes into "Megane" hungry.
Tempting as it might be to group Naoko Ogigami in with the other female Japanese directors currently enjoying well-deserved attention, she doesn’t quite fit. The tone of her films in general, and “Megane” in specific, is too singular to comfortably sit alongside Yuki Tanada and company. Not that Tanada’s work is common or pedestrian—far from it!—but Ogigami’s closest contemporary might be Wes Anderson, another distinctly idiosyncratic voice (though her work isn't quite as insular or twee). Ultimately, Ogigami’s films are as exotic and unexpected a destination as the unnamed island at the heart of “Megane”. And as one character tells Taeko, “It takes talent. The talent to be here.” Finding and enjoying these films takes talent as well--if not talent, then an appreciation for unusual characters and a comfortably laconic storytelling style.
Note: The Korean special edition of "Megane" is a 2-disc set with English subs, a gorgeous clean transfer, and a second disc of supplementary material. It's currently in print and retails for about US$20+s/h.