Postcard: Tokyo

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 05 January, 2014, 4:14pm
UPDATED : Monday, 06 January, 2014, 5:25pm

Stories of young lovers parted by a cruel twist of fate are staples of the Japanese film industry, whose romantic dramas are as likely to end with a funeral as they are with a wedding. This tendency to look at love as a prelude to disaster and death - the polar opposite of Hollywood's happy ending formula - has deep roots in Japanese drama and literature.

Among the most revived plays by dramatist Chikamatsu Monzaemon (1653-1725) is The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, a 1703 bunraku (puppet play) drama about two lovers - a clerk and a courtesan - whose hopes for happiness are shattered when the clerk is threatened with arrest and disgrace by a merchant friend turned swindler. Naturally, justice is not done and the lovers commit the title suicide in the third act.

This tendency to look at love as a prelude to disaster and death - the polar opposite of Hollywood's happy ending formula - has deep roots in Japanese drama and literature

The Japanese film industry was quick to take up this theme. Though postwar democratisation and liberalisation made it harder to sell feudal-era stories about doomed lovers, the Nikkatsu studio found a winning solution to this dilemma in Till Death Do Us Apart (1964).

A melodrama based on a true story, it revolves around teenagers Michiko (Sayuri Yoshinaga) and Makoto (Mitsuo Hamada), who first become acquainted in a hospital where Michiko is being treated for a rare disease. They enter university, but Michiko's condition worsens and Makoto, now deeply in love, urges her to keep fighting, even though a planned operation will remove half her face. Of course, her battle is a losing one - but the film was a huge, studio-reviving hit.

In more contemporary times, the tragic love story received another box office boost with Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World, Isao Yukisada's 2004 film about a 30-something man (Takao Ohsawa) who is engaged to be married but can't forget the great love of his youth - a vibrant, life-loving girl (Masami Nagasawa) afflicted with fatal leukaemia. Audiences cried oceans of tears - and the film earned nearly US$73 million domestically.

Since this smash success, the love story/medical melodrama with the guy or gal (usually not both) dying by the last reel, has become a big, thudding cinematic cliché, but one that its mostly female audience seemingly never tires of. The films are usually adaptations of bestselling novels, and not all their helmers are studio hacks.

A former "pink film" (soft-core porn) director, Ryuichi Hiroki, became an international festival favourite with such films as Vibrator, his 2003 drama about a bulimic, alcoholic writer who goes on a momentous journey of sex and self-revelation with a hunky truck driver. His biggest hits domestically have been April Bride (2009), a melodrama about a young woman who decides to marry her lover despite her terminal breast cancer, and Crying 100 Times - Every Raindrop Falls (2013), a weepie about a man who lost his memory in a motorcycle accident but falls for a woman whose cancer is in remission - temporarily.

The latest twist on this romantic melodrama formula is Girl in the Sunny Place, which opens in Hong Kong cinemas on Thursday. Based on Osamu Koshigaya's novel, director Takahiro Miki's fantasy-drama centres on a young salesman, Kosuke (Jun Matsumoto), who reunites with a former classmate he saved from bullies when she was a socially awkward student in junior high school. Now that they are adults, Mao (Juri Ueno) is eager to rekindle the spark they shared as teenagers - but she has a secret she can't reveal to Kosuke for fear of losing him forever.

A former music video director who has become a romantic drama specialist since his feature debut with the 2010 indie hit Solanin, Miki is less inhibited than Hiroki about manipulating the audience's emotional pressure points, though he also holds out the sort of hope that the more traditional Japanese weepy would deny.

Still, if you are a romantic drama fan, bring lots of tissues: Girl in the Sunny Place may be a fresh take on an old formula, but it wants - and gets - the same old results.