The Lightning Tree 雷桜
2010, colour, 1.85:1, 133 mins
Directed by Hiroki Ryuichi (廣木隆一)
By Derek Elley
Sat, 09 October 2010, 08:59 AM (HKT)
Romeo & Juliet story of a samurai and a mountain girl lacks both passion and atmosphere. Asian festivals.
Japan, Edo period (1603-1868). Lord Narimichi (Okada Masaki), the cloistered son of a shogun in Edo, the country's capital, suffers from irrational rages and sudden blackouts. His father tells Squire Enokido (Emoto Akira) that Narimichi's behaviour must not be allowed to shame the family, so Enokido appoints Seta Sukejiro (Koide Keisuke) to be his attendant. The latter takes Narimichi to his home village, where his elder brother Suketaro is headman, so the young noble can convalesce in peace and quiet. But there Narimichi bumps into tomboy mountain girl Rai (Aoi Yu), who lives in the forest with her foster father Riemon (Tokito Saburo), a charcoal maker. Twenty years ago, when she was just a baby, Riemon disobeyed an order to kill her - during a dispute over water rights between the Iwamoto and Shimanaka clans - and raised her himself. He named her Rai from the shaft of lightning that split a gingko tree in half that night from which sprouted cherry blossom. Rai's real name is Yu, and she is Seta's younger sister. Riemon tells her to go back and join her real family, which she reluctantly does. But she and Narimichi have fallen deeply in love and, to make things worse, Narimichi's father is planning to marry him off to Lady Kiku, the daughter of fellow clansman Harufusa of Kishu.
HIROKI Ryuichi 廣木隆一's career as a director has yoyoed between more envelope-pushing films (Vibrator ヴァイブレータ (2003), M Ｍ (2006)) and more conventional fare, but The Lightning Tree 雷桜 (2010) falls into a no-man's-land between the two. The movie is clearly trying to bring a fresh spin on the samurai genre by focusing on a Romeo & Juliet-like romance with a modern tone — AOI Yu 蒼井優 looks especially contemporary in her tomboy forest clothes and pigtail — but the formula never catches fire dramatically. Part of the reason is the production design, which is so immaculate the film looks like it was shot in an Edo theme park, without any period atmosphere; but part is also due to the TV-like direction and passionless acting, with no style to the former and no chemistry in the latter. As the girl, Aoi (Anna in Hana & Alice 花とアリス (2004), and the pizza deliverer in Tokyo! 도쿄！ (2008)) is much more characterful than the weedy-looking OKADA Masaki 岡田将生, who's much more suited to modern roles, like the teacher in the recent Confessions 告白 (2010)).
The screenplay — adapted from a novel by Mary WEATHER 宇江佐真理, pen name of 61-year-old writer Ito Kaori (伊藤香) — is also needlessly complicated, without a clear central arc: when the audience is trying to get engrossed in the love story, it's being permanently distracted by too much detail surrounding the characters (such as the clan warfare in Seta village, in which Rai/Yu's foster father was entangled, or minor roles back in Edo). The problem is that, with this detail stripped out, the movie would be even less than it is already. A sweeping romantic score could have helped to disguise the movie's bloodless heart, but music is sparse throughout and unsuitably modern when it comes. Hiroki also milks little magic from the movie's central romantic symbol, the gingko-cum-cherry blossom tree.
ContactSales: TBS, Tokyo (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Premiere: Pusan Film Festival (Open Cinema), 8 Oct 2010. Theatrical release: Japan, 22 Oct 2010.
Presented by "The Lightning Tree" Production Committee (JP). Produced by TBS Pictures (JP). Producer: Hirano Takashi.
Script: Tanaka Sachiko, Kato Masato. Novel: Mary Weather (2000). Photography: Nabeshima Atsuhiro. Editing: Kikuchi Junichi. Music: Ohashi Yoshinori. Art direction: Heya Kyoko. Sound: Fukada Akira.
Cast: Okada Masaki (Lord Narimichi), Aoi Yu (Rai/Yu), Koide Keisuke (Sukejiro Seta), Emoto Akira (Squire Enokido), Tokito Saburo (Riemon, Yu's foster father).