In 1990, Nakahara Shun released The Cherry Orchard (Sakura no Sono), a film about two hours in the life of a drama club at a girls high school, just before it stages Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Working from a script by Jinno Hiroaki , Nakahara filmed, not just a slice of teenage life, but a complete world, populated by twenty-two girls who revealed their sexual longings, hidden fears and inner lives.
The Cherry Orchard was named the best Japanese film of the year by the Kinema Junpo critics poll, while winning many domestic awards. Abroad, the reaction was muted: the film was not invited to major foreign film festivals or talked up by important foreign critics.
The film sets itself a hard cinematic problem and proceeds to solve it with taste, sensitivity, and wit. The problem is this: Make a film focusing on four members of a girls’ high school drama dub. Set it in and around the clubroom and limit it to the two hours prior to the club’s annual performance of Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. Keep the presence of boys and adults to a minimum (one chaste kissing scene, one comic chase scene) and make the action as naturalistic as possible (if twenty-two teenage girls are in the same room, show twenty-two of them talking at once). Finally - and most difficult - take the audience inside the lives of the four main characters, while showing the transience of girlhood innocence, the ache of adolescent love.
Jinno and Nakahara succeed brilliantly at this task. Their premise resembles that of American Graffiti (Jinno has claimed it as an inspiration) but where George Lucas’ 1973 film mostly celebrates the noisy, exuberant exterior of adolescent life, The Cherry Orchard probes interior longings, desires and fears. The American film is mostly a series of escapades; the Japanese film, mostly talk that reveals its characters as individuals, not representative types.
It opens with Shiromaru Kaoru (Miyazawa Miho), a second-year student who is the play’s director, alone in the clubroom with her boyfriend. The room’s spaciousness, age, and design signals tradition and privilege. It is also a private, feminine space. When the boyfriend plants a kiss on Shiromaru’s neck, a danger signal goes off in her mind (Nakahara underlines it with a perfectly timed dose up). She hustles him out just as Shimizu Yubuko (Nakajima Hiroko), a third-year student, walks in.
This seemingly isolated incident (the boyfriend makes only one more brief appearance) resonates throughout the film. It not only establishes a theme - the girls’ awakening to sexuality - but sets a tone of furtiveness and intimacy. The boyfriend’s absence intensifies our experience of the film’s feminine atmosphere, the way a bell at midnight makes us more aware of the surrounding silence. The cigarettes and lighter he leaves behind become emblems of his presence - that Nakahara uses to reveal his characters’ feelings about not just the owner, but their own sexuality.
The drama club is the one place where the girls can be themselves, free from the pressures of male attention and adult authority. This refuge is neither innocent nor idyllic, however. Shimizu comes to school wearing a permanent - strictly against school rules. Then Sugiyama Kiko (Tsumiki Miho), the rebel of the group, is seen at a coffee shop smoking a cigarette. Both are called to the teachers’ room while the school authorities debate whether to cancel the play because of Sugiyama’s misbehavior.
Then another crisis arises: Kurata Chiyoko (Shirashima Yasuyo), a girl with a major role in the play, contracts a bad case of stage fright. Her best friend, Shimizu, tries to comfort her, but the closeness of their relationship provokes the jealousy of Sugiyama, who is attracted to Shimizu. This may sound like a same-sex love triangle typical of Japanese girls’ comics (the story was based on one), but Nakahara makes us feel the weight these seemingly minor upsets have in the girls lives. It is a virtuoso turn, worthy of that master interpreter of youth, François Truffaut. As Shimizu, Nakajima Hiroko projects a strong intelligence and precocious sensuality. As Sugiyama, Tsumiki Miho impresses as the most knowing - and thus the saddest - of the film’s girls.
In the fifteen years since The Cherry Orchard ‘s release, Nakahara has continued to work steadily, making films like Lie, Lie, Lie (1997), Coquille (1999), Colorful (2000) and Consent (2002) in the same naturalistic, humanistic vein as The Cherry Orchard. He also has his fervent fans, including manga artist Takahashi Tsutomu (Alive, Sky High).
When Takahashi heard that two of the actresses in The Cherry Orchard - Miyazawa Miho and Kajiwara Aki - had written a script inspired by Nakahara’s masterpiece, about a female manga artist in crisis, he decided to become its producer. Meanwhile, Kajiwara had already approached Nakahara about directing it, but he hesitated, not wanting what he called the "responsibility" of a follow-up. The two men finally hit on an unusual arrangement: they would both direct Miyazawa and Kajiwara in the two main roles.
Their film, Ichigo.Chips (Ichigo no Kakera) resembles The Cherry Orchard in its close observation of character and clear recognition of the way past acts can ripple through the present. But where the former film unfolded in the charged atmosphere of adolescence, in which two hours can seem like a lifetime, the new one starts as its two heroines are entering their fourth decade, when youth is ending and the future can stretch out like a long, dimly lit trail to nowhere.
They are Ichigo (Kajiwara), a spoiled, neurotic, creatively blocked shojo manga (girls’ comic) artist, and Tomoko (Miyazawa), her long-suffering manager. Ichigo last had a hit twelve years ago with Cherry Road, a manga that ended with a frame of the handsome hero’s motorbike fallen on the road - and the hero nowhere in sight. Ichigo still has her fans, but they are dwindling in number - and no one knows it better than Tomoko.
After meeting Tomoko and Sakai (Koichi Mantaro), her equally long-suffering editor, at a wedding reception, Ichigo goes to a favorite transvestite bar. There she pours out her frustrations to the straight-talking mama (Maki Karuseru) and friendly bar boy (Komoto Masahiro). Reeling home, she has a close encounter with a truck - and is reunited with the model for her hero (Oshio Manabu), who died in a motorbike accident and was the love of her teenage life.
If this were the ordinary Japanese romantic drama we would have crossed the border into fantasy, never to return. The film, however, soon returns Ichigo to the world of the living - and all her various dilemmas.
Nonetheless, she now has the inspiration she and everyone around her had long been waiting for. The pages begin to fly off her pen, but she can’t let go of the boy she believes she sent to his death so long ago.
The story may sound shojo manga-esque (as it should, since it was basis for Cherry Road), but Nakahara and Takahashi tell it with little of the usual shojo manga romanticizing and caricaturizing. Ichigo is a mature woman facing a desperate career crunch, while Tomoko is not only fed up with her thankless job but not totally honest with Ichigo about a person important to them both. At the same time, there is an unbreakable bond between these two - they are, like or not, friends for life.
This willingness to respect his characters’ inner lives, instead of forcing them into the mold of plot, is a hallmark of Nakahara’s work. It informs Ichigo.Chips from its beginning, in a storm of falling cherry blossoms, to its ending, which comes from all that went before - and has a transformative rightness.
The spirit of The Cherry Orchard is still alive and well.