- Original title
- Miyoko Asagaya Kibun
- Japanese title
- Running time
- 86 minutes
- 28 February 2010
by Tom Mes
The Japanese film industry today suffers from many an illness, but one of the most pernicious is producers' lack of faith in original material. Ask any filmmaker and they will tell you that the only projects that find financing these days are those based on proven properties: novels, TV series and above all manga.
Nothing wrong with an adaptation from another source per se, especially from as fertile a source as Japanese literature or manga. The problem starts when this comes at the cost of any and all alternatives, when a monopoly is brought into being. Looking forward to the upcoming film by your favorite filmmaker? Chances are it will be based on a manga.
Miyoko, then, is a fascinating case. Not only is it based on a manga, it embraces its source material so wholeheartedly as to make its comicbook origins part of the very style of the film. The opening scene sees a succession of comicbook panels transform into their live-action equivalents, literal shot-for-shot translations from page to screen. Echoes of George Romero's seminal and fondly remembered Creepshow (1982), with the exception that the comic that came to life in Romero's film was an imaginary one that formed a tribute to 1950s EC horror strips.
Miyoko's roots lie with Shinichi Abe's Miyoko Asagaya Kibun. Hardly a bestselling property, Abe's autobiographical serial appeared in Garo, the celebrated counter-cultural comic magazine that published the daring works of such avant-garde artists as Yoshiharu Tsuge and Suehiro Maruo. Perhaps its cult origins are the reason why Miyoko hardly feels like your average conservative manga adaptation aimed at the middle of the road. It is a film without stars based on a source few people know that talks about the gradual mental decline of a genius and the unwavering devotion of his long-suffering wife and muse.
Miyoko is as much a biopic of Shinichi Abe as it is an adaptation of his manga. Inevitably so, since the manga was, if the film is to be believed, thoroughly autobiographical: it described the daily lives and romantic entanglements of Abe and his sensual wife Miyoko. Slaving away without much success at first, Abe hits the mother lode when he decides to make Miyoko not just the model for his heroines, but the heroine period. But after the first volume is published, complications ensue. The couple's most private details are there in the pages of the magazine for all to see and follow. Miyoko feels ashamed but her love for her husband is stronger. The tension beneath the surface, however, starts to wreak havoc on their domestic life. Shinichi begins to cheat on Miyoko with her best friend, working his adventures into his stories, thus only deepening the humiliation. A college friend with a long-standing crush on Miyoko finds himself swept up in the maelstrom. In an attempt to calm things down, Shinichi and Miyoko move to a country home and start a family. But the spiral leads irrevocably downward.
First-time director Yoshifumi Tsubota directs with a sure hand, putting great care into evoking the early-1970s setting, not so much through elaborate sets, but through emulating lighting and colour patterns from films from the period, without ever falling into ersatz kitsch. Convincing as a period piece, the film nevertheless feels entirely contemporary. Unlike the push-button nostalgia piece Always: Sunset on Third Street, Miyoko makes inventive use of CGI to visualise the increasingly erratic mind of Shinichi Abe, again using the original artist's comicbook panels as examples.
Also contributing immensely to this fine film are its two main actors. The talents of Kenji Mizuhashi should be no secret to those who have followed this characteristic yet paradoxically also chameleon-like actor since his first lead role in Akihiko Shiota's debut film Moonlight Whispers (Gekko no Sasayaki, 1995) and the host of supporting roles he has appeared in since. Mari Machida as Miyoko is the film's great revelation. Her angular features and penetrating gaze (also featured in another very inventive mixture of manga and cinema, Tetsuya Mariko's Yellow Kid, which came out around the same time as Miyoko) suggest an eternally blazing fire that gives the tragic character of Miyoko far more dimension than the mere suffering housewife of a million male fantasies that she could have become in the hands of a less capable actress. She brings to mind Ayako Wakao in some of her more vulnerable performances in films such as The Wife of Seishu Hanaoka (Yasuzo Masumura, 1967).
And this brings us back from whence we started. The same cowardly philosophy that allows for unoriginality to monopolise film production is also allowing for disposable, chaste "talent" to gain a monopoly on lead roles in these films. Square-jawed boys and doll-like girls populate too many Japanese films - sterile, inoffensive (except to those who love cinema) eye candy that outstays its welcome long before most of these vastly overlong fabrications even reach their closing credits (more than two hours is the norm for films because this makes them longer than TV movies - such is the pitiable logic that hopes to lure people away from their television sets and into the theaters; all quantity, no quality).
Hence the breath - no, the blast - of fresh air that is Miyoko, an 86-minute film with no stars by an unknown director, based on a barely known source. May its inclusion in the Rotterdam Film Festival's Tiger competition be only the first of its triumphs.