Taking inspiration from Leo Yoshida's autobiographical novel, Honokaa Boy falls into that ever-enduring category of movies known as the coming-of-age-story. This 2009 iteration of the genre comes from Japanese filmmaker Atsushi Sanada, whose previous directorial effort was the 2005 omnibus film, All About My Dog. With a languorous and unassuming narrative, Honoka'a Boy weaves an intriguing tale of friendship, love, and the power of things left unspoken.
Honokaa Boy begins with the disintegration of a relationship and ends with a reaffirmation of another. The film's opening introduces us to a young Japanese couple on the verge of a breakup. In the midst of a Hawaiian vacation gone awry, university student Leo (Masaki Okada) is having a hard time pleasing his sour-faced, interminably irritated young girlfriend (Yu Aoi). Unimpressed by the scenery, she's ready to go back to Japan, while Leo has become quietly smitten with the place; in particular, he feels a compelling attraction to the unpretentious little town of Honoka'a, located on Hawai'i's Big Island.
Six months later, Leo catches a plane back to the Big Island and visits Honoka'a all by himself. In no time at all, he procures a job as a projectionist at the Honoka'a People's Theatre, and soon befriends the theater's owner and concession worker, and a couple of the town's elderly residents. Perhaps the more entertaining of the two is Koichi (Koishi Kimi), the quirky, porn-loving grandpa who becomes a perverted Obi-Wan Kenobi to Leo's Luke Skywalker. Koichi is good for a lot of laughs, but it's the other older person that Leo meets who has the most impact on his life, a local Japanese woman named Bee (Chieko Basho).
After Leo stops at her house to fulfill an errand, Bee takes a liking to the young man, inviting him to come back for regular meals. The two strike up an unconventional friendship, considering their age differences. They spend an increasing amount of time together and seem to genuinely enjoy each other's company. As their friendship develops, one begins to wonder if the lonely Bee had a son that Leo reminds her of – perhaps he never visits, he died, or he never existed to begin with. However, that theory soon proves not to be the case or, at the very least, irrelevant. It becomes clear that Bee has fallen for Leo, and her efforts to catch the young man's eye are adorable, if a bit heartbreaking to watch.
Meanwhile, the totally oblivious Leo has a crush of his own. Throughout the film, he's seen a local hapa girl named Mariah (New Hampshire-born Jun Hasegawa) endure a tumultuous relationship with a largely unseen boyfriend. A chance encounter with Mariah allows Leo to embark on a budding, more age-appropriate relationship with her. But when Leo proposes that he bring Mariah over for dinner at Bee's place, things take a dramatic, wholly unexpected turn.
Honokaa Boy is the kind of quiet, unobtrusive film that revels in introspective silences, hidden emotions, and extremely beautiful natural scenery. There's much humor to be found amongst all the heartbreak, particularly thanks to Koishi Kimi, who practically steals the show as Leo's ever-randy grandpa figure. The not-quite-platonic, not-quite romantic relationship between Leo and Bee is unexpected, refreshing, and entirely faithful to the kind of complex, unspoken emotions that emerge in any kind of burgeoning, tentative relationship – no matter the age. Bee's reaction to Leo's callousness is also a surprise, as elderly people in film rarely act in a selfish or vindictive manner, and are instead often relegated to being genial and unthreatening geriatrics. Leo's attempt at a relationship with Mariah rings true as well, as she turns out not to be “the idealized dream girl who'll change the mopey hero's life” that genre convention (see Garden State or Elizabethtown) might lead us to expect.
Despite my genuine affection for Honokaa Boy, I do have one reservation. Its depiction of Hawai'i or, to be more specific, its depiction of Hawai'i's relationship to Japan is intensely problematic. On the surface, one can read this as a love letter to the Big Island. Hawai'i is shown to be a paradise, both in terms of natural scenery and in the way that the local Japanese characters have embraced a sort of “Big Island” state of mind – a way of living that the film seems to mark as superior to life back in Japan. Honokaa Boy consistently shows the smattering of Japanese tourists who come through town as a caravan of gaudy, interminably trendy interlopers who can't seem to appreciate anything put in front of them unless they've catalogued it with their digital cameras. In contrast with the more laid-back citizens of Honoka'a, these Japanese tourists (as nice and as cute and as harmless as they are) seem like folks who are leading shallow, inauthentic lives.
Of course, it's not surprising that the film would want to highlight this difference for commentary purposes – a story that focuses on country life vs. city life isn't anything new. However, I would say that the film is still problematic because Hawai'i, as characterized in the film, seems to exist merely as an extension of Japan or, as some Japanese call it, the unofficial 48th prefecture. If the film is to be believed, Honoka'a is composed solely of local Japanese. In reality, Honoka'a's demographics break down to 43% Asian (not solely Japanese), 25% white, and 4% Pacific Islander. Native culture, local culture, and Hawai'i's status as a U.S. state are either partially elided or ignored completely. In fact, the only real suggestion of a possible local identity separate from Japan is Mariah's little-seen boyfriend, who is depicted more as a local oaf than as a fully realized character.
Granted, a well-rounded portrayal of the boyfriend is completely unnecessary to the story Atsushi Sanada wants to tell, but putting that omission in the context of the larger film and its incredibly narrow focus on a Japanese community that seems to comprise the “whole” rather than the “part” raises more than a few troubling concerns. Strangely enough, I think that the film is richer due to this problematic construction of Japan-Hawai'i relations and local identity. In some ways, this misrepresentation (if it can be called that) gives an added texture to a film that already defies notions of what a typical coming-of-age story should be. Peaceful, reflective, and often hilarious, Honokaa Boy delivers a heartbreakingly honest, unconventional romance that, despite its problems, is able to hit the right emotional chords each and every time. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)