Prince Charming (青蛙王子, Wong Jing, 1984)

Prince charming 84 poster“This isn’t a film from the 1930s!” a confused sidekick exclaims part way through Wong Jing’s zany ‘80s comedy Prince Charming (青蛙王子). He’s right, it isn’t, but it might as well be for all the farcical goings on in Wong’s hugely populist, unabashedly zeitgeisty romp through a rapidly modernising society. Starring popstar Kenny Bee, Prince Charming also marks the feature film debut of the later legendary Maggie Cheung who would find herself making a fair few disposable comedies in the early part of her career. All the Wong trademarks are very much in evidence from the sometimes crude humour to the random narrative developments and deliberate theatricality but it has its charms, even if perhaps despite itself.

Signalling the “aspirational” atmosphere right away, Wong opens in “Hawaii” with Kenny Bee performing one of the many musical numbers which will be heard throughout the film (which is also a kind of idol movie as well as a populist Shaw Brothers Comedy). Chen Li Pen (Kenny Bee) is the son of an oil magnate and hotel chain manager but unlike his father, is a sensitive, nerdy young man who gets the hiccups around attractive women and has never had any luck with the opposite sex. Nevertheless, his mother wants to set him up with an arranged marriage – something which he vehemently opposes but understands will become harder for him fend off if he can’t find himself a love match in good time. Enter his old friend Lolanto (Nat Chan Pak-Cheung) who is a self-styled ladies man if a bit “common”. Lolanto has come to Hawaii on holiday and to hang out with Li Pen, but like any young guy he also wants to meet some girls.

The guys end up in a kind of sparring match with the two ladies staying in an adjacent room at the hotel, May (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and Kitty, (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) following a series of misunderstandings. When the girls drug them and then somehow leave them on a rock in the middle of the ocean, the boys are humiliated but don’t have too long to nurse their wounds because Li Pen’s dad sends them back to Hong Kong to investigate suspected embezzlement at head office. As luck would have it, both May and Kitty work for Li Pen’s family firm (which was perhaps why they were staying in the hotel). Another misunderstanding sees May assume Li Pen is a former triad looking for a new start, so she “bribes” the hiring department to get him a job as a chauffeur, while Lolanto ends up in the boss’ office posing as Li Pen. Hilarity ensues.

Aiming a squarely for the populist, Wong’s defiantly aspirational vision revolves around the fabulously wealthy and internationalised Li Pen who went to college in the US and lives most of his life in Hawaii, perhaps not quite understanding Hong Kong in the same way Lolanto does, both because of his outsider status and because of the freedom his wealth gives him. When the two swap roles they each get a kind of education, but their real quest (while halfheartedly investigating the embezzlement scandal) is winning over Kitty and May who think they’re dating a CEO and a chauffeur respectively. Despite their irritation when they realise their mistake, both May and Kitty perhaps come to realise that the deception is a part of what eventually drew them to the guys and they’re a better match than they might otherwise have imagined.

Meanwhile, Wong finally remembers the embezzlement plot and introduces a third woman, Puipui (Rosamund Kwan Chi-Lam), who is secretly a plant set up to seduce the pure hearted Li Pen and marry him because this will in some way prevent the embezzlement scam from coming to light. Puipui’s scheme eventually kicks off the ridiculous finale in which the gang find themselves chased by goons and having to play pool for their lives with hostages hooked up to electric chairs which will be triggered when a certain number of points are scored. Wong adds a host of cutesy touches from cartoon hearts around our lovelorn heroes and adorable doodles popping up as on screen graphics while Kenny Bee and Cherie Chung also get a completely bizarre musical number at the midway point where they pretend to be happy frogs marooned on a private lily pad. It doesn’t make any sense, but it really doesn’t matter. Completely throw away, but strangely fun.


Currently streaming on Netflix UK (and perhaps other territories)

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Kazuyuki Izutsu, 1984)

fine with occasional murders posterIn Japan’s ailing late ‘70s cinema market, studios were taking extreme decisions to get the public away from their TV sets and back into movie houses, yet one enterprising would-be media mogul had another idea. Haruki Kadokawa, a man with a publishing house and cinematic ambitions hit on a then innovative marketing strategy which amounted to a perfect storm for his own particular capabilities. Amassing a small stable of idols, he resurrected the studio system to produce a steady stream of youth movies adapting novels he also published and featuring title songs which his idols sang and he released on his record label. Hitting their heyday in the early to mid-1980s, Kadokawa’s idol films are a perfect time capsule of their pre-bubble setting in which, unlike the “seishun eiga” of twenty years before, upperclass young girls solved crimes and defied authority all whilst remaining prim, elegant and innocent. Fine, with Occasional Murders (晴れ、ときどき殺人, Hare, Tokidoki Satsujin) is a prime example of this gentle yet somehow dangerous world as its heroine returns home from studying abroad only to become embroiled in a conspiracy lodged firmly within her own home.

As the film opens, a middle-aged man and woman pay a nighttime visit to the site of a new factory, reminiscing about their youth and the small soap business they started thirty years ago which is now a full scale plastics film. The woman catches sight of someone leaving and stops to wish him goodnight only to suddenly wonder why he’s there in the first place. The reason becomes apparent when she steps forward a little and discovers the body of a young woman lying against her fence post. As if that weren’t worrying enough, factory owner Mrs. Kitazato (Mitsuyo Asaka) then starts getting threatening letters telling her she must go to the police and confirm that an innocent man is the killer or her daughter, Kanako (Noriko Watanabe), studying overseas, will be in danger. Mrs. Kitazato frets and worries but goes along with the killer’s demands to save her daughter only to be confronted with the dead body of the patsy as it lands right at her feet after being thrown from a police station window.

Suffering from a heart condition, Mrs. Kitazato remains unwell until Kanako comes home but then lasts only long enough to impart two important secrets – one being that the man Kanako assumed was her father may not have been, and secondly the whole story with the threatening letters and her belief that they were sent by someone in the family from whom she received a New Year card written in the same handwriting.

As usual Kanako is left to deal with all of this on her own, though slightly less usually remains within her own family home for the vast majority of the picture. Paid a visit by the police, Kanako comes into contact with their prime suspect in the first murder, Kamimura (Yosuke Tagawa) – a young man who had been a high school friend of the victim and had given her a place to stay while she was trying to escape her career as a hotel hooker. Kamimura becomes Kanako’s innocent love interest as she hides him in the secret room her mother had built behind a dresser in the dining room. Together the pair try to investigate the strange goings on in the Kitazato household whilst also exploring their very different backgrounds. 

Like many of Kadokawa’s idol movies (often adapted from the novels of Jiro Akagawa) the setting is both dark and hopefully innocent as Kanako is burdened with the knowledge that someone close to her is a murderer but faces her situation with cheerful resilience and determination. Whilst pursuing her spiky relationship with Kamimura, she’s also being haunted by the spectre of an arranged marriage to the dreadful son of a business associate, Masahiko (Akihiro Shimizu), who attempts to rape her with her mother’s body still still lying on the bed in the same room, and is also having an affair with their maid, Mari (Mariko Miike). Masahiko is also revealed as a prime suspect in the murders when another body is discovered in the living room with Masahiko standing red handed over it. The murder scenes (and there are more than you’d expect), are nasty, bloody and violent. Despite the innocence of Kanako’s wide open world, misogynistic killers lurk round every corner as do corrupt businessmen, untrustworthy servants, and enemies masquerading as friends.

As darks as it gets, the tone is always one of irony filled with bumbling policemen who form an odd double act in their humorous black and forth, running jokes about hard contact lenses and improbably large sandwiches, and the general whimsy of a young man’s dream of building a real flying bicycle. Despite being one of Kadokawa’s new “Sannin Musume” (alongside Hiroko Yakusushimaru and Tomoyo Harada), Noriko Watanabe played fewer leading roles than her two compatriots. Fine with Occasional Murders (released in the same year as Someday, Someone Will Be Killed), is her first big idol movie lead for which she also sings the theme song which has an almost identical title. She is, however, the archetypal Kadokawa heroine – steadfast, strong, confident, kind, and noble, calmly solving the mystery behind her own mother’s death mere days after losing her, figuring out that poor boys are probably OK, and that awful CEOs and their sons will always be awful. Valuable lessons indeed for increasingly wealthy 1980s teens. 


TV Commercial

And the song itself which has the same title as the movie only the last two characters are read differently – Hare, Tokidoki Kirumi

Someday, Someone Will Be Killed (いつか誰かが殺される, Yoichi Sai, 1984)

Haruki Kadokawa dominated much of mainstream 1980s cinema with his all encompassing media empire perpetuated by a constant cycle of movies, books, and songs all used to sell the other. 1984’s Someday, Someone Will be Killed (いつか誰かが殺される, Itsuka Dareka ga Korosareru) is another in this familiar pattern adapting the Kadokawa teen novel by Jiro Akagawa and starring lesser idol Noriko Watanabe in one of her rare leading performances in which she also sings the similarly titled theme song. The third film from Korean/Japanese director Yoichi Sai, Someday, Someone Will be Killed is an impressive mix of everything which makes the world Kadokawa idol movies so enticing as the heroine finds herself unexpectedly at the centre of an ongoing international conspiracy protected only by a selection of underground drop outs but faces her adversity with typical perkiness and determination safe in the knowledge that nothing really all that bad is going to happen.

The film opens with a strange, often forgotten subplot as an eccentric elderly lady, apparently loathed by her children who are taking bets on when she will die, celebrates her birthday by announcing a new game – taking the first syllables of her children’s names she comes up with that of our heroine – Atsuko Moriya (Noriko Watanabe), whom she intends to invite to her party. Approaching the end of high school, Atsuko is an ordinary girl of the time which is to say her interests are studying, shopping, and boys. Her father is a reporter for a newspaper who is often away but has returned to take her on a rare shopping trip. Revealing that he was actually born abroad, her father slips a floppy disc into her handbag and disappears after going to make a phonecall while Atsuko is occupied in the fitting room. Striking up a friendship with the store assistant, Cola (Masato Furuoya), Atsuko is taken in by a collection of fake fashion peddling drop outs from society while she tries to work out what’s going on with her dad and what she’s supposed to do with the much sought after floppy disk.

Like many a Kadokawa heroine, Atsuko is quickly plunged into a dark and complicated world she is ill equipped to understand but in keeping with the nature of the genre the atmosphere is largely dictated by her typically teenage outlook. Despite the increasingly high stakes, the film remains bright and cheerful as Atsuko continues in her quest without fear or danger. Her main allies are a computer nerd (Toshinori Omi) who has such a crush on her he’s created his own 8-bit Atsuko operating system complete with palm reader door lock for his base of operations, and the guys from the fashion store who, it transpires, are a gang of counterfeiting squatters. A thoroughly middle class girl, Atsuko reacts negatively to her new found friends and their unusual domestic arrangements but quickly warms to them as they show her nothing but kindness and acceptance, even risking their own existence in an attempt to help her uncover the circumstances surrounding her father’s disappearance.

Fathers become something of a running theme as Atsuko’s solid relationship with hers is contrasted both with Cola’s disconnection from his family and his new found role as a kind of surrogate father for a little girl at the commune. Later the same theme resurfaces as Atsuko uncovers the truth behind her father’s birth which explains the dreams she often has of a bright red sun setting over a wide river. These circumstances are echoed in the strange atmosphere of the mansion at which the film begins as its eccentric, regency dressing older lady engages with her seemingly resentful children in a cold and severe manner. An insert song playing as Atsuko and Cola take a drive wonders what the point of family is, but Atsuko’s concern is less than with the nature of familial bonds than with her own identity as filtered through that of her father and her discoveries of his apparently mysterious birth and career. Thus her final decision becomes one which sets her on a course of growing up in a quest for self knowledge and the creation of an identity which is both of her own making and takes into account her new found family history.

Making room for a musical sequence in which Atsuko picks up a guitar and embarks on a rendition of Summertime as well a few insert songs alongside the title track, Someday, Someone Will be Killed is pure Kadokawa idol movie but Sai makes sure to up the stakes with some genuinely exciting action sequences and mounting tension as Atsuko finds herself in way over her head. Of course there are a few comic moments too including the unfortunate detective charged with locating Atsuko to give her the invitation to the old lady’s ball who often finds himself beaten up by mistake by one side or the other. Very much of its time with its cold war paranoia coupled with up to the minute technology, Someday, Someone Will be Killed is among the darker of the idol dramas Kadokawa had to offer but nevertheless remains rosy and innocent in terms of outlook right up until Atsuko takes off on her motorbike in search of the woman she’ll eventually become.


Title track sung by Noriko Watanabe Itsuka Dareka ga…

Behind the Yellow Line (緣份, Taylor Wong, 1984)

behind-yellow-lineBack in the 1980s, you could make a film that’s actually no good at all but because of its fluffy, non-sensical cheesiness still manages to salvage something and capture the viewer’s good will in the process. In the intervening thirty years, this is a skill that seems to have been lost but at least we have films like Taylor Wong’s Behind the Yellow Line (緣份, Yuan Fen) to remind us this kind of disposable mainstream youth comedy was once possible. Starring three youngsters who would go on to become some of Hong Kong’s biggest stars over the next two decades, Behind the Yellow Line is no lost classic but is an enjoyable time capsule of its mid-80s setting.

Paul (Leslie Cheung) is a mild mannered guy trying to get to work on time and make a good impression on his first day on the job but after having a taxi stolen out from under him and having to run some of the way, he rushes onto the underground where he has a meet cute with Monica (Maggie Cheung) – a sad looking lady who barely notices his presence. Paul is smitten and follows her onto the train where she continues to ignore him. Despite his best efforts he makes more of an impression on Anita (Anita Mui) – a wealthy and extremely fashionably dressed woman with giant 80s hair! Anita makes a play for Paul but he only has eyes for Monica. Monica is just getting over a failed affair with a married man and isn’t really sure of anything anymore. It’s all in the hands of fate and the mass transit authority but will true love really run its course?

Behind the Yellow Line (presumably so named for its train station setting, the chinese title is simply “fate”) is meandering mess of a picture though very much typical of its time. Paul and Monica get together but she’s still torn over her married lover who resurfaces at the most inconvenient moment whilst also fighting off the attentions of her flirtatious boss causing Paul to overreact in fit of jealously and almost ruin everything in the process. Eventually they decide to sort things out with a game of fate as Monica hides on the MTR expecting Paul to successfully pin point her location before the last train rolls so that she knows they are truly destined to be together.

This central spine of the film works well enough as Paul and Monica tempt fate with their true love romance but where does Anita fit into all this? Popping up now and then almost at random, Anita seems like a strange after thought or a refugee from another film. A stock ‘80s style kooky character, she’s all big hair and bold makeup but she’s also a wealthy woman trying to buy Paul (or more particularly his parents) with the promise of material security. ‘80s setting aside, consumerism is only a mild bi-product and neither Paul nor Monica is particularly pressed over material concerns – all that matters here is true love destiny and the successful resolution of their romantic difficulties. Anita becomes a kind of cupid, forsaking her own feelings in order to satisfy Paul’s in gesture of true love that also recognises having lost out in the great game of fate as her feelings are not returned. Or, there are things money cannot fix (at least, not in the way you want it to).

In this way Behind the Yellow line becomes more interesting as it’s Anita and Monica who begin to move the plot. Monica is quick to remind us that she’s a single woman and she has the right to choose – in this case, she feels sorry for both of her potential partners (whilst completely disinterested in her boss) and so is inclined to decide to remain alone. The film obviously doesn’t go this way, but it does present her choice as a perfectly valid one whilst also affording her the agency to choose her own destiny right the way through. Anita largely wields her power through her money (which appears to be inherited, the gang of other young people she hangs round with seem to be wealthy too making her choice of Paul a relatively strange one), but she exercises her individuality through her unconventional behaviour and bold fashion choices, refusing to give in to social norms but submitting to “destiny” in acknowledging that her feelings are unrequited.

Very much of its time, Behind the Yellow Line is an obvious piece of disposable entertainment designed to appeal to a very specific audience. Filled with cheerful ‘80s cantopop and bright neon lighting there’s relatively little angst in this tale of youthful romance. Everything bounces along much as one would expect with no melodramatic intrusions save Monica’s sometimes melancholy indecisiveness and Paul’s diffidence. Structurally the film is riddled with problems not least with its use of Anita who seems to appear and disappear as needed with no clear indication of her precise function yet it provides enough silly humour and good natured drama to coast though without too many problems. No great lost classic but enjoyable enough, Behind the Yellow is worth seeking out if only to witness the genesis of these three soon to be giants of the entertainment world whose careers became curiously intertwined before ending much too soon in the early years of the following century.


2003 Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Original 1984 Cantonese trailer (English subtitles for onscreen text only, no subtitles for dialogue)

W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, Shinichiro Sawai, 1984)

W's TragedyHiroko Yakushimaru was one of the biggest idols of the 1980s. After starring in Shinji Somai’s Sailor Suit and Machine Gun, she went on to become one of Kadokawa’s tentpole stars in vehicles such as Detective Story and Main Theme but she hit her artistic stride in 1984’s W’s Tragedy (Wの悲劇, W no Higeki) which earned her her first Blue Ribbon award for Best Actress. Inspired by the 1982 novel of the same name by Shizuko Natsuki (translated into English under the title Murder at Mt. Fuji), Sawai’s film radically diverges from its source material as the central murder mystery takes place on stage but eerily begins to mirror real life events.

Shizuka Mita (Hiroko Yakushimaru) is an aspiring young actress desperate to find her place in the spotlight. After spending the night with her teacher, she wanders home through a park and begins monologuing her life on the stage of an outdoor amphitheatre. Unbeknownst to her, a young man was sleeping on one of the rear benches and wakes up to applaud her performance. Despite her hostility towards him, Akio perseveres in getting Shizuka’s attention and the two eventually develop a tentative relationship.

Shizuka’s acting school offers its pupils the opportunity to star in a full scale production with established stars of the stage as part of their training and this year’s play is based on the recent novel, W’s Tragedy, which centres around a murder in an aristocratic family. Shikuza is desperate to win the leading role of Mako who claims to have murdered her grandfather after he tried to assault her. Losing out in the original auditions process but winning a small role which also comes with some backstage craft experience, Shizuka begins to lose heart. However, after building up a relationship with the star actress in the show, Shizuka is offered the opportunity to displace her rival through underhanded means but just how far is she willing to go for stardom and what will it all mean if and when she gets it?

Taking its cues from All About Eve, W’s Tragedy, reconfigured as a vehicle for Yakushimaru, becomes more about dualities as Shizuka effectively splits into two different “selves” – the young and innocent girl dreaming of a life on the stage, and the insecure, ambitious student willing to sacrifice anything to get there. Though clearly conflicted, Shizuka easily gives in to dubious suggestions that will earn her what she wants though not perhaps in the way that she wanted it. Her rival is shown to be a very competent actress who has also sacrificed parts of herself to attain the position that Shizuka so covets though it’s the older actress, Sho, who is the first to lament the fate of the displaced former leading lady even if she adopts a casualty of war ethos about the whole entrprise.

Shizuka gives the best performance of her life at a press conference held when she replaces the other actress in the show as she lies through her teeth to reinforce the fake story she and Sho have concocted together to their mutual benefit. Taking the brunt of a scandal just as Mako tries to take responsibility for a crime in the play, Shizuka becomes rather than performs an entirely different persona as she gives a heartfelt account of a passionate love affair with a married man that belongs to someone else entirely. Taken to task by Akio who doesn’t know the story is fake but has come to despise this manipulative side of the acting profession, Shizuka begins to wonder who she really is underneath all of the lies, scheming, and performance.

Though the directing style is generally straightforward and in keeping with Kadokawa’s mainstream idol movies of the time, Sawai adds in a few interesting flourishes which often pay homage to similarly themed Western movies such as an overtly All About Eve moment with Shizuoka taking to the stage and reciting the lead role when she thinks no one’s looking. A strange shot near the end takes place during the play but has been constructed entirely for our benefit as Shizuka looks at her reflection on a pane of glass. The audience would not be able to pick up on this ghostly effect of the two Shizukas – the stage persona and the shade of the innocent girl dreaming of the spotlight, but the effect itself is a perfect evocation of the ever present theme of duality.

Very much of its time and bearing most of the hallmarks of the classic Kadokawa idol movie, W’s Tragedy is, in many ways, the evocation of another era. However, it does provide a plum leading role for its star and an interesting meditation on the nature of acting as a profession as well as the double standards and hypocritical judgements inherent to the running of the entertainment industry.  Though less explosive than the later Perfect Blue with which it shares a few common themes, W’s Tragedy provides another set of mirrors into the nature of stardom, identity, and the price of success.


Unsubbed trailer (look out for a brief cameo from the late Yukio Ninagawa):

And here’s a clip of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song at her 30 year anniversary concert back in 2013:

The Deserted City (廃市, Haishi, Nobuhiko Obayashi, 1984)

haishiNobuhiko Obayashi might be most closely associated with his debut, Hausu, which takes the form of a surreal, totally psychedelic haunted house movie, but in many ways his first feature is not particularly indicative of the rest of Obayashi’s output. 1984’s The Deserted City (AKA Haishi, 廃市), is a much better reflection of the director’s most prominent preoccupations as it once again sees the protagonist taking a journey of memory back to a distant youth which is both forgotten in name yet ever present like an anonymous ghost haunting the narrator with long held regrets and recriminations.

Based on a novel by Takehiko Fukunaga, The Deserted City is a European influenced, nostalgic, coming of age tale in which university student Eguchi travels to a small Japanese backwater famous for its canals. Though not as sophisticated as Venice itself, the town shares something of the atmosphere of that city as it has often been evoked in literature in its slightly claustrophobic, decaying grandeur. Eguchi has come to the town on an invitation from his uncle and with the intention of spending the summer there to finish his undergraduate dissertation which concerns the work of Edgar Allen Poe.

However, Tokyoite Eguchi immediately finds the town strange, if mostly charming, with its old fashioned rhythms and almost silent soundscape in which only the lapping of the village’s many rivers is audible. Staying in a guest house run by 19 year old Yasuko and her grandmother, Eguchi begins to hear gentle sobbing at night and jumps to the conclusion it must belong to Yasuko’s married older sister, Ikuyo, whom he has yet to meet. Younger brother Saburo also lurks silently in the background with the brother-in-law, Naoyuki, making infrequent appearances. Eguchi had apparently almost forgotten about this single summer in his youth, but was reminded of it after reading a newspaper report that the town had been destroyed in a fire. His memories are coloured by the tragedy which occurred towards the end of his stay and which his youthful soul was not fully able to understand.

The Deserted City revisits many of the themes which came to define Obayashi’s career from the nostalgia for youth and the power of memory to a vaguely supernatural tone which prefigures the final traumatic event that will continue to haunt the protagonist, even if unconsciously, for the rest of his life. Fukunaga was himself very much influenced by European literature and The Deserted City has a distinctly Western feeling with its death ridden canal town and once grand family in decline. Eguchi’s thesis is on the work of Edgar Allen Poe and it wouldn’t be a stretch to say that he is reading his studies into the story of his own life with the mysterious crying and hidden sister not to mention family secrets and the frequent allusions to the sorry state of the moribund city.

Eguchi describes Yasuko as “cheerful” yet she herself offers the most melancholic commentary of her life. She says she hates the town and can’t stand the constant sound of the waters which she likens the death wail of her city – a slothful sound without energy or purpose. She can see all the other young people leaving with only the elderly remaining behind to decay along with the town, but when Eguchi asks why she doesn’t leave too she replies that she can’t, she’s bound to this place in life and death. Similarly when making a visit to her mother’s grave at a nearby temple she remarks that in this place of stillness, she can no longer discern a difference between the living and the dead. Finally, after all the tragedies that have befallen her, Yasuko declares herself to be “nothing at all” and in bidding Eguchi goodbye as he leaves, corrects him when he promises to visit – she knows she’ll never see him again, he will return to the world of the living. He’ll forget all of this, as if it happened in a dream.

Like many of these stories, The Deserted City is filled with the detached melancholy of the older man looking back at the young one. Eguchi says this incident taught him to expect tragedy from the very beginning of things though he also claimed to have forgotten all about the town and its sad stories of longing and misunderstandings, romantic and otherwise. Working with ATG here Obayashi opts for a nostalgic 4:3 frame and a moderately warm colour palate which echoes both the slightly idealised atmosphere of the idyllic waterside village and its nature as a place which exists solely in memory, shaded in tones of nostalgia but also of regret. Much more conventional than some of Obayashi’s other work, The Deserted City is a perfect blend of European romanticism, melodrama and slight gothic undertones which, though a little low on impact, is a perfect synthesis of his themes up to this point.


Unsubbed trailer:

Main Theme (メイン・テーマ, Yoshimitsu Morita, 1984)

main themeDespite being one of the most prolific directors of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the work of Yoshimitsu Morita has not often travelled extensively overseas. Though frequently appearing at high profile international film festivals, few of Morita’s films have been released outside of Japan and largely he’s still best remembered for his hugely influential (and oft re-visited) 1983 black comedy, The Family Game. In part, this has to be down to Morita’s own zigzagging career which saw him mixing arthouse aesthetics with more populist projects. Main Theme is definitely in the latter category and is one of the many commercial teen idol vehicles he tackled in the 1980s.

A tale of two intersecting love stories, Main Theme begins with nursery nurse Shibuki getting close to the father of one of her pupils, Omaezaki, who will shortly be transferred to Osaka. Omaezaki also has a long running thing with a cabaret jazz singer, Kayoko, which seems to be a messy situation to begin with. Shibuki then ends up running into magician with a pick-up truck Ken who drives her to Osaka where she’s set to meet up with Omaezaki to become some kind of nanny living with him and his wife. En route, the pair pick up Kayako little knowing of her relationship with Omaezaki. Eventually, everyone ends up in Okinawa where Ken lives and Shibuki has an older sister each hoping to sort out their romantic difficulties under the blue island skies.

Main Theme stars popular idol of the time Hiroko Yakushimaru (star of Sailor Suit and Machine Gun) and is, unsurprisingly, centred around her chart topping song of the same name. A neat, new Japanese arrangement of the classic jazz standard Sway, the song fits neatly into the movie’s soundtrack which also features a number of other jazz hits such as The Man I Love and most notably Bei Mir Bistu Shein (or Shoen, or Shön depending on which version you’re looking at) courtesy of our cabaret singer (and her rivals) but being an ‘80s movie there’s still a bit of pop synth in there too though our central couple do seem to have oddly sophisticated tastes.

Though it is, as it’s intended to be, a teen romantic comedy, Morita tries (not entirely successfully) to put a little more substance into the background by also showing us the unhappy romance of middle-aged jazz singer Kayoko and the non-committal Omaezaki. It seems the pair have had an entailment probably stemming back years, perhaps even before Omaezaki’s marriage. Mrs. Omaezaki is a fairly ditzy and neurotic woman who loves shopping and seems to be more interested in the appearance of things than the reality. The status of the marriage itself is difficult to discern and it’s not quite clear if Omaezaki’s problem is a lack of will to leave his wife or that he’s already “left” and is trying to find a way to support her. In any case, introducing Shibuki, a 19yr old with an obvious crush on him, to the household is not one of his better ideas.

Needless to say, Ken also ends up forming an attraction to the older, melancholy musician who doesn’t seem to know what it is she wants (or knows but chooses to run away from it) leaving us in an odd kind of love square with the couples really each wanting their age appropriate partners but getting distracted by foolish dalliances with age and youth respectively. It does feel as if Morita could have made more of this dramatically interesting idea as Kayoko in particular is drawn in by Ken’s youthful innocence, but this isn’t what the film is for so it remains an intriguing yet perverse addition to the film’s otherwise straightforward narrative.

The “perversity” or strangeness of the film doesn’t end there as Morita has also added a number of quirky, absurd touches to offset the flatness of the teenage love drama. Perhaps because he’s a magician we get these odd flashes of Ken where he’s suddenly got crazy eyebrows (just for one 15 second shot) or crazy hair and there’s another charming scene where he’s pulling artificial flowers out of his suit only to have the magic bouquet suddenly droop as his heart starts to break. In another intriguing trope there’s also a strange illustrated map which lead’s Shibuki to her sister’s house by outlining common scenes from the area and when she gets there the gates are covered in light up ornamental tropical fruits. Add to this that the backing behind Kayoko’s final cabaret reads “Bates Motel Live” and there’s definitely a very strange mind behind the production design on this run of the mill, idol pop pushing rom-com.

Undoubtedly of its time, there is probably a reason Main Theme has not proved a big overseas hit though it seems to have been massively popular at the time and is fondly remembered for nostalgic reasons even if not particularly well regarded today. This is perhaps how the film is best approached – as a monument of its times and as a prime example of the 80s idol dramas studios such as Kadokawa put out to push their inoffensive pop music. However, Morita does add his own quirky touches to the film which does provide its fair share of youthful fun even if it isn’t always successful.


Unsubtitled trailer:

And a more recent version of Hiroko Yakushimaru singing the title song: