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film writing by nicholas vroman

Archive for January 2009

Osaka Hamlet / 大坂ハムレット

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Take one part Ozu. Throw in a little Taiyo-zoku (the traditional Japanese “sun tribe” JD films). How about a bit of whacky coming-of-age? And then, let’s not forget the icing on the cake – a sort of Rocky-esque underdog making good despite everything in the way sort of tale. But this time use a cross-dressing 7-year old as the hero working against insurmountable odds. Osaka Hamlet throws in a few more curveballs and as the best guilty pleasures do, opens an amusing cultural window. A great movie it’s not, but it is strangely satisfying despite its ham-fisted sentimentality and can see ‘em from a mile away comedic and dramatic setups.

Director Fujio Mitsuishi is beginning to carve out a little niche for himself with sentimental coming of age stories. He hit the scene a few years ago with Ogya, a well received, but not overwhelming chronicle of a pregnant teenager. Osaka Hamlet is based on the delightfully illustrated manga by Hiromi Morishita, which displays a bit more subtly and nuance than the filmed version.

Opening on the funeral of a household patriarch, Fusako and her three sons, Yukio, Masashi and Hiroki bravely hold on as guests make off-color jokes about the deceased. The uncomfortable situation hits a climax as long lost uncle, Takanori, bursts upon the scene, wailing. Yukio breaks the tension with a simple (and recurring) question, “Who is that guy?”

The uncle moves in and the ball is set in motion for a classic setup of how to deal with all the issues a dead father leaves behind. Masashi (Masahiro Hisano), the eldest, soldiers on until he meets Yuka (Natsuki Kato), a young student teacher. Passing himself off as being older than the high school student he is, an odd romance ensues in which Yuka, with a few unreconciled issues of her own, asks him to play a father figure to her – adding much to his already confused state of being. Teenaged Yukio (Naoyuki Morita) is all tough and dumb and proud of it. After being compared to Hamlet, he for once in his life picks up a book – Shakespeare’s Hamlet – to find out if he’s being insulted or not. Though he’s at first a little hostile to the mixed up messages of Hamlet, he finally gets it. Yep, there’s nothing quite like looking at the classics for a few life lessons. And perhaps most interesting is the strange reaction of youngster, Hiroki (Tomoya Ohtsuka), who after watching the incredibly overplayed passing of his favorite cancer-ridden young aunt decides he want to be a woman. The family unquestioningly supports him all the way through to his final bow as Cinderella in the school play.

Osaka Hamlet features some fine work by veteran character actors, Keiko Matsuzaka as the mom and Ittoku Kishibe as the uncle. Director Mitsuishi also handles the youth in the film with a deft hand. His Speilbergisms and thick sentimentality though leave a bit of cloying taste. Nevertheless, when a preteen boy in a dress is a film’s hero, one knows that the times have changed. And I say “All right!”

Osaka Hamlet opened throughout Japan on January 1

Originally published in Japanzine, January 2009

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Written by Nicholas Vroman

January 1, 2009 at 1:39 am