Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Japan Cuts ’12: Girls for Keeps

Japan is the land of the rising Hello Kitty.  Cuteness is a big deal here.  It is all Yukiko Takigawa was ever good at.  However, people are telling her she is slightly less young than she once was and should maybe consider dressing like a schoolmarm now.  Takigawa and her friends will juggle their personal and professional lives as best they can in Yoshihiro Fukagawa’s Girls for Keeps (trailer here), which screens tomorrow as part of the 2012 Japan Cuts: The New York Festival of Japanese Cinema.

Yes, this is a chick flick.  Profoundly so, in fact, but at least the cast is attractive from top to bottom, unlike a certain former HBO show some might be tempted to compare with Takigawa’s fab four (it’s even based on a chick lit novel). 

Though roughly the same age, each is at a very different point in their lives.  Seiko Takeda has just received a plum promotion, but her passed-over chauvinist colleague is determined to undermine her authority.  Takako Hirai works hard at a luxury dealership and even harder as a single parent to her young son.  Sales manager Yoko Kosaka used to just plug away at the office, but when she is assigned an attractive but much younger trainee, she starts losing her cool.  Meanwhile, Takigawa has an opportunity to finally make her mark in the fashion industry, but a dowdy rival is not about to make things easy for her.

Yes, those relationship things sure are tricky.  Careers are no walk in the park either.  This might sound like somewhat shopworn material for Bridget Jones-saturated viewers, but it seems safe to assume Japanese boardrooms remain a far cry from Manhattan publishing offices.  The stakes for Takeda are actually quite high, which is why even the jaded will find themselves rooting for her nemesis’s comeuppance.

Indeed, Girls starts a tad slow, but hits its stride as it catwalks along.  Takeda’s office intrigue is rather compelling and Takigawa’s relationship with her slacker boyfriend turns out to be far more interesting than it first appears.  All four co-leads are quite engaging, particularly Kumiko Asô (no stranger to Japan Cuts regulars from films like The Seaside Motel and Bare Essence of Life Ultra Miracle Love Story), who is quite engaging as Takeda, realistically wrestling with sexism and her own self-doubts.   Likewise, Karina’s Takigawa is a sweetly endearing protagonist-narrator (worlds removed from her electric turn in the Japan Cuts favorite Parade).

Despite a small army of characters and a bushel of subplots, Girls’ four primary story arcs hang together fairly well.  Refreshingly, it is maintains both a sense of idealism as well as a responsible level-headed world view.  Takigawa and her friends come to terms with the fact they cannot absolutely have it all, while also recognizing they should not automatically write-off major life options wholesale—to thine own self be true, but don’t kick yourself for making a few concessions here or there.  If Girls is more than a bit manipulative in getting to its morale, well that goes with the territory.  A cut above the genre standard thanks to its ensemble, Girls for Keeps is recommended for fans of Bridget Jones, Lifetime movies, and the talented Japanese cast.  It screens tomorrow night (7/18) at the Japan Society as part of this year’s Japan Cuts.