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SUGAR & SPICE aka Fûmi zekka (Japan)

  Publicity Stills of "Sugar and Spice"
(Courtesy from Cathay-Keris Films)

In Japan with English and Chinese Subtitles
Director: Isamu Nakae
Cast: Yuya Yagira, Erika Sawajiri, Mari Natsuki, Yo Oizumi, Chen Bo-lin
Runtime: 2 hrs 4 mins
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Rating: PG (Some Sexual References)

Opening Day: 8 November 2007


A Tokyo suburb with a middle American feel, the city of Fussa is home to a US military base with its wide avenues, second-hand clothing stores peddling American merchandise and bars catering largely to G.I.s.

Shiro (Yuya Yagira) is a 18-year-old Fussa native, fresh from high school graduation, who finds himself standing in that ambivalent “no man’s land” between adolescence and adulthood, ready to strike out on his own but uncertain whether to trust his underdeveloped instincts. He shirks off college, much to the dismay of his conventional parents who barely register in his life, and takes a job at a gas station for no other reason than a vague ambition to do something with cars. For guidance and moral support, Shiro turns to his offbeat, septuagenarian grandmother, “Fujiko” (Mari Natsuki), a perennial “flower child” and pro-American who owns a local watering hole and celebrates life with a romantic corps de esprit that she’s preserved since her halcyon youth. It is “Grandma” who wields the greatest influence on Shiro’s spiritual and moral upbringing and she takes to the role of mentor with the passion of a sacred mission. “Working at a gas station’s a great idea, “ she tells him. “So full of romance. A rest stop for life’s drifters. I’ll handle your father on this one.”

While Shiro still races around town on his bicycle and rents porn flicks with his boyhood pals, he’s keenly reminded that this part of life is quickly ending when he sees his two best friends willingly trade in their childhood pursuits for college and “true love” – of the same girl. “I’ve yet to know what that feels like,” confesses Shiro, who has a sense of the vital role love plays in a person’s coming of age but feels personally removed from it. Like a self-fulfilling prophecy, however, Shiro stumbles across a public breakup scene one evening between a man in a white car and a college girl, Noriko (Erika Sawajiri). Days later, Shiro is surprised to see the same girl arrive at the gas station as the newly-hired help, and even more alarmed at his loss of composure in front of her. He is love-struck, and his bittersweet initiation into adult life begins.

Movie Review:

Based on the 2005 award-winning novel of the same name which was praised for its heartwarming portrayal of a coming-of-age romance, Sugar and Spice ~ Fumi Zekka unfortunately proves unable to translate successfully to the big screen. Despite prodigious amounts of talented performances abound in the form of the young but luminous Yuya Yagira as Shiro, the charming Erika Sawajiri as Noriko and the oddball Mari Natsuki who plays Shiro’s scene-stealing quirky grandmother. Combined with the unnecessarily protracted pacing of the movie, what could have been a touching portrayal of first love quickly degenerates into a vapid snoozefest.

Shiro, being fresh out of high school, is at a crossroads in life. His two best friends are embarking on separate journeys, respectively going to a prestigious faraway college and moving in with his girlfriend and working his way through college. In a bout of teenage whimsy and much to the chagrin of his disapproving parents, Shiro decides to work at an Americanised gas station, egged on by his eccentric grandmother, who herself runs a bar near the American army base. Shiro one day finds himself witness to a strange street scene, where Noriko is in the midst of slapping her presumably dastardly boyfriend. In another strange turn of events, he finds Noriko becoming his latest colleague, and after a few false starts, the two predictably fall in love, singing along to English songs neither of them really understand and basically going through the motions of showing the world what a blissfully happy couple they are.

Character development only occurs on the part of Shiro, which we find ourselves in empathy with as he gradually loses himself entirely in the relationship. Unfortunately, Noriko and even his grandmother are reduced to stock, conventional characters which we cannot really feel for even as the movie progresses – through no fault of the actors, who are accomplished thespians in their own right. Noriko in particular never really gets a chance to develop, which makes her ultimately too easy to vilify once things go wrong, as is usually the case in such films. Feeling very much like a Murakami-inspired film at times, with its slow and winding, mostly-Western oldie soundtrack, the film nevertheless resounds with a certain hollowness that prevents it from becoming the full-fledged bittersweet romance that it sets out to achieve.

As the second half of the movie drags along, what’s plainly evident is that director Isamu Nake really needs to take a few lessons on basic movie editing – the movie feels pretty much like Rohypnol on celluloid. This lethargic pacing was what genuinely killed the flick for me, and for this I completely blame Nake, whose previous films have been disappointing but really outdid himself this time, going solely by the sheer amount of talent he had to work with. In trying to emulate the truly great style of Shinji Iwaji, Nake is testament to the belief that sometimes imitation is really not the best form of flattery. In the hands of a more capable director, Sugar and Spice ~ Fumi Zekka really could have been so much better. However, in this case, I’d rather get knocked out on sedatives by my dentist than to have to endure this particular ride again.

Movie Rating:

(Sugar and Spice, and All Things (not so) Nice)

Review by Ninart Lui

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