28 August 2008

Last Quarter (下弦の月, 2004)

This 2004 film is an adaptation of the short manga series Last Quarter (Kagen no Tsuki, 1998-1999) by popular manga-ka Ai Yazawa (矢沢あい). The adaptation was released at the peak of Yazawa's fame as she had just wrapped up the series Paradise Kiss and was basking in the success of the Nana series. The film also garanteed a wide audience because it stars the lead singer of L'Arc en Ciel (ラルク アン シエル), Hyde (ハイド), as love interest Adam. The film also stars popular actors Chiaki Kuriyama (栗山千明) and Hiroki Narimiya (成宮 寛貴 ) and Mizuki Mochizuki and Tomoki Anzai.

It is difficult to encapsulate the story of Last Quarter without giving away too much of the plot. It's a kind of a supernatural love story à la Patrick Swayze's Ghost, but with a complicated past and present twist. A young girl named Hotaru Shiraishi discovers a young woman living in an abandoned house who is unable to remember anything about herself excpet that she has a boyfriend named Adam whom she desperately wants to see again. Hotaru enlists the help of her friends (in the manga she has three friends helping her but the film only uses one) but they are unable to see the girl, whom they christen Eve. They believe that Eve must be a ghost and so they set out to find out her identity and how they can help her move on into the next life. The manga mixes elements of several genres including shōjo, romance, detective, and ghost story / science fiction.

With any adaptation, I expect a great deal of excising of the original story from a screenwriter. As the plot of the manga Last Quarter, gets more and more complicated and unlikely as the story progresses, my expectation was that writer-director Ken Nikai would have to choose a couple elements of the story to focus on in order to capture the imagination of a cinema-going audience successfully. Unfortunately, Nikai stripped away the charm of the original manga and replaced it with over-the-top special effects and a plot with more holes in it than Swiss cheese. Perhaps if I had not read the manga before seeing the film, I might have enjoyed it more in the 'so bad it's funny' kind of way, but for me Nikai cut all the things that I found charming about the original story. In the manga, I found it easier to put up with the cheesy, unbelievable aspects of the romantic ghost storyline because Hotaru and her group of friends provided comic relief and were very realistically drawn, sympathetic characters. In fact, I could imagine a whole series of stories involving the intrepid four solving local mysteries.

The two main failings of the film were unneccessary use of special effects and a lack of chemistry between the actors who are meant to be passionately in love with each other. Ken Nikai should have taken a page from the minimalism employed by Yazawa in the manga because these overly elaborate sets, particularly in the house and fence scenes made the film look like a gaudy B-movie. The special effects used to make Mizuki/Eve's eyes look glassy moved the film closer into the horror genre, so that I thought that at any minute she was going to turn into a vampire and start attacking poor Hotaru and Masaki (who is a mixture of the two boys in the original manga).

While I was willing to suspend my disbelief regarding the logistics of ghosts of people who died 20 years before in England turning up in central Tokyo, it would have helped if they had actually appeared to have an attraction to each other. I believe that the film may have pulled it off with Asian audiences in a way that it didn't with me because of the wide fan base of Hyde and L'Arc en Ciel. I could imagine that a female fan might transfer her own passion for Hyde onto Mizuki and thereby make up for the complete lack of chemistry between Hyde and Chiaki Kuriyama. I also found chemistry lacking between Kuriyama and Hiroki Narimiya, whose character Tomoki Anzai was inflated in order to make him more of a starring role.

So much of the symbolism of the original story (the ring, the white dress) was altered in the film so as to lose meaning. I think the film would have been more successful if it had focused more on the detective story than on the romance, as it was that aspect that had me turning the pages in the manga. Also, if a film expects us to believe the supernatural aspects of a story, then the details of the 'real life' portions of the film have to be spot on. For example: how does Adam know how to use a modern Japanese cellphone if he is a ghost from England 20 years ago? How could Mizuki get hit by a car in the middle of a street with no traffic on it (in the manga she was in busy Shibuya)? Why does Miura turn up at the haunted house when we haven't even been introduced to his character yet? Why is Adam (half)-Japanese? I really could only recommend this film to fans of Hyde, Chiaki Kuriyama, and Hiroki Narimiya – though one might find it amusing after a few glasses of wine. Shōjo fans should just read the manga. It is well worth it for the delightful rapport between the four kids solving the mystery of 'Eve'.