Sunday, October 3, 2010

Top Ten Best Coming of Age Films

Ah, the endless days of childhood when it seemed like days went on forever and our deepest concerns were how to fill our hours with play and make believe. Those days don't last forever though and soon very grown up responsibilities and dilemmas creep into our lives and before we know it we're on the path to being an adult. For some of us this change happens far too soon, while for others it never seems to have fully kicked in. Regardless of when and how we come of age it's a pattern that is universal. It was our own Marc Saint-Cyr who thought that it would be interesting to look at the very best of these stories of transition and growing maturity, so this month we are proud to present our list of the ten Japanese films we believe best capture this sometimes wonderful, sometimes painful stage of our lives.

10. Install - Kei Kataoka (2004)

To start off our list of the best coming of age films we bring you a film that will probably never get a North American DVD release. Why? Because it takes... shall we say... a unique look at a girl's budding sexuality. Based on Risa Wataya’s 2001 coming of age novel "Install" the film follows the life of Asako (Aya Ueto), a girl who's not only trying to cement her own personal identity, but who is also dealing with some tragic loses at school. In order to find her way Asako begins to play hooky and eventually crosses paths with her 10-year-old neighbour Aoki (Ryunosuke Kamiki) who takes a broken home PC off Asako's hands for a very unorthodox reason. It runs out that Aoki has taken over an online sex chat room for a internet friend who has just had a baby, but he needs a second pair of hands to make sure the site runs smoothly. He turns to Asako who very quickly comes face to face with her burdgeoning sexuality while chatting with toal strangers online. See what I mean about "Install" never getting a North American release? Yes, the film is a minefield of ethical and moral issues, but it never takes the path that one would think it would. There's no predatory pedophiles, no abuse and no cautionary finger-wagging. It sounds hard to believe but "Install" is a smart and often very funny look at one young woman's transition from the girlhood to the complexity, grief and possibilities of adulthood. CM

9. Blue - Hiroshi Ando (2001)

Realizing who you are and where you belong doesn’t always happen in a perfect Hollywood moment as the symphonic score reaches a crescendo; Sometimes it takes a long, hot summer in a small town filled with nothing to do. Director Hiroshi Ando understands this, depicting his protagonist Kayako’s self discovery at a glacial pace in “Blue”. Kayako is played—maybe channeled is a better word—by Mikako Ichikawa, then a model for offbeat girls lifestyle magazines like Olive; she is all elbows and knees, an awkward, gangly caricature of a small-town girl on the cusp of womanhood. Without a smudge of makeup and with hair like a “Profound Desire of the Gods” islander, she’s the polar opposite of sleek, calm Masami (Manami Konishi), a recent transplant from Tokyo that embodies the sense of self Kayako lacks. (Anyone over the age of 25 would recognize Masami’s act: UK new wave CDs, Cezanne art books, and cigarettes all mark her as a fairly run-of-the-mill teen girl feigning sophistication.) Over the course of some months Kayako falls in love with Masami, Masami betrays her, Kayako learns that for all her cool Masami has her own set of problems, and Kayako moves on to a life outside of her small seaside town. The wide-open ending—a video camera pointed at the waves on the beach where they shared their first kiss—hints that Kayako made it to art school, and is documenting the summer of her first romantic entanglement. Her coming of age wasn’t a single dramatic scene but rather a slow, painful process played out over cicada song and lapping waves, with Kayako gradually becoming what Masami the poseur pretends to be: A young woman living an art-life in the big city. The biggest clue to this transformation occurs once the narrative has ended: the flute whose chirps and honks intermittently punctuate scenes in the film is finally set free in the soaring melody of the main theme, composed and performed by avant-garde jazz giant Otomo Yoshihide. “Blue” might have benefitted from a director who moved the camera more or created a heightened sense of drama from some of the scenes. As it is, “Blue” has a sort of ultra-realism—people sitting around, staring off into space, twilighting—that doesn’t work as often as it needs to, especially compared to how much more effectively the technique is used by Naoko Ogigami in films like “Megane”. But the film does convey the uncertainty of teen infatuation, the seemingly endless wait of a few days away from the one you love, and the end-of-the-world ache of a first broken heart. EE

8. Young Thugs: Nostalgia - Takashi Miike (1998)

Leave it to Takashi Miike to produce a coming of age story as scrappy and strange as "Young Thugs: Nostalgia." Its protagonist is Riichi (Yuki Nagata), a bold little punk who got his name from the declaration “Reach!” made during a mahjong game. His home life is turbulent, to say the least, made so mainly by his abusive father, who torments both the boy and his mother. Yet some comfort is provided by Riichi’s grandfather, who sets the lout straight when things go too far and encourages his grandson to stand tall against bullies. Rough street fights are a regular occurrence in Riichi’s life, with him often ending up on the losing side. But despite his frequent clashes at home and in the streets, Riichi doesn’t lack his fair share of happy distractions. High among them is Miss Ito (Saki Takaoka), who becomes the subject of his hormone-induced obsession as only an attractive, mature woman can to a boy of that age. Certain events also add some color and adventure to his life, including the Apollo 11 mission, the transition from the 1960s into the ‘70s and an ambitious plan to travel across Japan. With his signature blend of humor, quirkiness and poignancy, Miike lovingly portrays his young hero’s bumpy quest towards manhood and all of the factors – cultural, familial, sexual – that inevitably shape it. MSC

7. Oh My Buddha! - Tomorwo Taguchi (2009)

Who would ever think that Tomorowo Taguchi, the “Iron Man” of Shinya Tsukamoto’s legendary film, was capable of making something as charming, funny and stylish as "Oh, My Buddha!"? Also known as "The Shikisoku Generation" and adapted from a novel by Jun Miura, the prolific actor’s second venture in the director’s chair is a fantastically engaging chronicle of youth and summer in the 1970s. Talented newcomer Daichi Watanabe plays Jun, a student at a Kyoto Buddhist high school who embarks with his friends to a youth hostel in the Oki Islands, where they hope to discover a paradise of “free sex.” While their hilarious, lust-driven dreams are a little further from reach than they had originally hoped, they nonetheless settle into an inviting atmosphere of fun and friendship. A close bond is soon formed with Hige Godzilla (Kazunobu Mineta), a long-haired supervisor who teaches the boys about music and freedom, while Jun soon falls head over heels in love with the enchanting Olive (Asami Usuda). The fleeting island adventure imparts many valuable lessons about romance and life, while the portions of the film before and after the trip come with their own nested story elements, including an intimidating gang, an elusive crush, Jun’s embarrassing yet helpful parents and his tutor-turned-mentor in the ways of drinking, music and relationships. Both wise and entertaining, "Oh, My Buddha!" compellingly laces together Bob Dylan, Bruce Lee, campfire gatherings, male bonding, first love and one hell of a talent show performance all into one incredibly touching and well-made film. MSC

6. Village of Dreams - Yoichi Higashi (1996)

It is possible to make a live action version of “My Neighbour Totoro” with two twin boys instead of sisters and various yokai and spirits subbing for the much loved king of the forest? Okay, director Yoichi Higashi’s 1996 film isn't a remake of Miyazaki's animated classic. Instead it is a screen adaptation of famed illutrator Seizo Tashima's autobiography "The Village of My Paintings", but the story of his childhood with his twin brother Yukihiko feels like it has a lot in common with "Totoro". The film weaves a languid, picturesque portrait of two young siblings growing up in the early 1950's in rural Kochi Prefecture with only their imaginations and games to entertain them. We watch as young Seizo and Yukihiko wreak havoc in farmer’s fields, raid eel traps, and have run-ins with witches and a frog-like kappa at their local swimming hole. All isn't fun and games though. Higashi has us sit at the bedside as one of the twins falls ill with a dangerous fever, has us listen in on the town drunks ravings against U.S. Occupation leader General MacArthur and the boys mother gives them the talk on the birds in the bees while she's stark naked in the family bath. You don't tend to hear a woman talking about their "very important hole" in a Miyazaki film, but the easy pacing and flashes of magical realism bring to mind the best of Studio Ghibli's output. The jury at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival may not have been drawing these parallels, but they were impressed enough by this charming coming of age film to award it the Silver Bear for Outstanding Single Achievement at that year's fest. CM

5. Whisper of the Heart - Yoshifumi Kondo (1995)

Shizuku is in her early teens and doesn't really take her studies seriously. She's creative, though, and dabbles in writing by making up her own lyrics to songs like John Denver's "Country Roads" while also devouring books from the library (where she is on a first name basis with staff). While coping with all the normal teenage and family issues (a bossy sister and distracted parents), she meets a boy named Seiji. He's confident and focused on his goal to become a violin maker. Shizuku hasn't yet galvanized her attentions towards any particular goals, so while he infuriates her (he is a teenage boy after all) he's also providing inspiration by being passionate about what he wants to do with his life and appears not to be afraid to make sacrifices. She's also inspired through a cat statue named The Baron that she stumbles across in Seiji's grandfather's trinket store - she imagines flying through the clouds with him and uses him as a jumping off point for her creative writing. Yoshifumi Kondo's gorgeous animated film is far beyond a simple coming of age tale about meeting a boy or achieving a certain level of maturity. "Listening to your heart" has been proposed many times in film and literature as the single guiding factor for life's decisions, but in never quite as subtle a fashion as here. BT

4. Ain't No Tomorrows - Yuki Tanada (2008)

So many films about high school either go the route of glittery proms and young romance or take a detour down to institutionalized violence and alienation. The fact is both extremes prove to be true, but so many more days in high school are spent in a limbo filled with boredom, mischief, hormones and camaraderie. No other Japanese film depicts these uneasy years better than Yuki Yanada's 2008 feature "Ain't No Tomorrows". Based on the indie manga by Akira Saso the film follows a trio of stories about love and sex between a group of high school friends. There's Mine (Yuya Endo) who takes his innocent classmate Chizu (Sakura Ando) under his wing. She drills him for his indepth knowledge of sexual intercourse, but does he really know what he's talking about? Meanwhile the virginal Tomono (Miwako) is being pressured into having sex with her class clown boyfriend Hiruma (Tokio Emoto). Their situation is by Tomono's inappropriate with her home-room teacher, Yoshida (Tomorowo Taguchi). Finally there's Ando (Ini Kusano), a kindly, overweight boy nicknamed Oppai or "Boobs" for his fleshy chest who finds himself in an odd situation. The beautiful and busty Akie (Ayame Misaki) has formed an unlikely infatuation with him. Tanada, who directed the hilarious and frank sex comedy "Electric Button (Moon & Cherry)" brings the same honesty and humour to the lives of these young men and women. Not since the 1980's films of John Hughes have the awkward high school years been depicted so accurately and compassionately. CM

3. A Gentle Breeze in the Village - Nobuhiro Yamashita (2007)

Sharing the same schoolhouse in a small mountain village, six children of different ages welcome a new arrival - a boy named Hiromi from Tokyo. This is great news for Soyo since she can now share the responsibilities of being the eldest and share classwork with another Grade 8 student. It doesn't hurt that she thinks he's pretty cute too. The main thread of this mostly episodic film follows the very natural ups and downs of Soyo and Hiromi's relationship and the possibility of some budding romance. However, it's really about Soyo's preparation to move towards a more adult life outside the only schoolhouse and village she has ever known. She and Hiromi fumble through the awkwardness of their feelings, but she also frets about the younger kids and the future of her beloved school. Soyo's maturation slowly arises as she wrestles with the looming loss of her simple, gentle-paced life and the family bonds she has with her classmates. Director Nobuhiro Yamashita allows us to spend a great deal of time with all the children (wonderful performances from all of them) by using many long takes and not rushing through the moments of their days. Soyo's final kiss of the film is a warm and tender reflection of her genuine love for the childhood she's leaving behind. BT

2. I Was Born, But... - Yasujiro Ozu (1932)

One of Yasujiro Ozu’s best-known silent films, "I Was Born, But…" is a playful tribute to the joys and pains of boyhood. Hideo Sugawara and Tokkan Kozo (a.k.a. Tomio Aoki) star as a pair of mischievous brothers who must face a gang of persistent bullies at their new school in the Tokyo suburbs. They soon resort to playing hooky to avoid their tormentors, hiding in a field and coming up with a creative (though comically botched) scheme to forge a passing grade on an assignment. Ozu includes a number of amusing details in his portrayal of the kids’ day-to-day lives: the odd fixation with sparrow eggs as both a strength enhancer and form of currency amongst the boys, a placard tacked onto one child’s back that warns others not to feed him due to an upset stomach, the usage of wooden clogs as weapons, a funny game that appears to revolve around a reenactment of death and resurrection. But the most insightful qualities of the film emerge from the children’s judgment of their parents. After comparing their father Yoshii (Tatsuo Saito) to their peers’ and witnessing a home movie in which he shamelessly clowns around with his boss, the brothers react with shame and anger. They demand to know why he is inferior to his employer and openly scold him for his meekness, forcing him to first punish them, then sit down and contemplate his place in life and image in his children’s eyes. Thus, Ozu’s tale is not only about children, but also the place parents occupy in their lives as well as the hard truths of the grown-up world that lie in store for them, making "I Was Born, But…" an uncommonly deep meditation on childhood. MSC

1. All About Lily Chou-Chou - Shunji Iwai (2001)

The road from childhood to adulthood is never an easy one and our top film doesn't pull any punches in its blistering depiction of a group of high school students and their premature initiation into some very adult dilemmas. Directed by Shunji Iwai "All About Lily Chou-Chou" makes us privy to the daily pressures and tragedies of Yuichi (Hayato Ichihara), a young man who spend most of his free time modrating a message board dedicated to fictional pop star Lily Chou-Chou. His friend Hoshino (Shugo Oshinari) starts out as the golden boy of his school, but a trip that he and Yuichi take to Okinawa changes all that. After nearly drowning Hoshino becomes the school's near sociopathic bully - belittling and beating Yoichi and the other boys and blackmailing his female classmate Shiori (Yu Aoi) into prostitution. Tough stuff no doubt, but storylines that weren't just birthed from Iwai's imagination. In 200 Iwai began an online interactive novel titled "Lilyholic" that young contributors could shape with their own stories. Iwai is a filmmaker whose output always skirts the dangerous line between pure style and substance, but "All About Lily Chou-Chou", despite its stunning digital cinematography provided by Noboru Shinoda and haunting soundtrack by Takeshi Kobayashi, is an unapologetically honest and often heartbreaking look at coming of age in early 21st-century Japan. The fact that the film has developed a loyal cult audience of teenagers across Asia (and the world for that matter) who see themselves in its characters attests to why it tops our list of coming of age films. CM


keeperdesign said...

Ask me why I forgot to suggest Barber Yoshino or Godzilla's Revenge.

Bob Turnbull said...

Why Eric, why?

Chris MaGee said...

Godzilla comes of age... and then he gets REVENGE!

keeperdesign said...

The topic didn't speak to me, but Yoshino would have worked really well. And Revenge would have been campy but fun, right? Uh, right?