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Heavenly Forest

Aoi Miyazaki and Hiroshi Tamaki in Heavenly Forest.
Japanese: Tada, kimi wo aishiteru  
Year: 2006  
Director: Takehiko Shinjo  
  Cast: Aoi Miyazaki, Hiroshi Tamaki, Munetaka Aoki, Keisuke Koide, Meisa Kuroki, Asae Oonishi, Misa Uehara
  The Skinny: Romance blooms between two awkward college freshmen in this surprisingly engaging entry into the otherwise increasingly formulaic "Pure Love" subgenre of romantic films. Heavenly Forest exceeds expectations in no small part due to the genuine chemistry between its two leads, both of whom deliver fine performances in their own right. Aoi Miyazaki fans will not be disappointed.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      At a glance, Heavenly Forest falls into the tradition of the exceedingly formulaic "Pure Love" subgenre that has become increasingly popular in both Japan and South Korea in recent years. A select few of these films have been both brilliant and deeply moving, while the rest are more often than not rote, unaffecting exercises in commercial filmmaking. What is perhaps most remarkable about Heavenly Forest, then, is that despite whatever clichés it may contain (and it contains many), the film's central romance never feels contrived or overly-manipulative. In fact, as audience members, we don't realize just how invested we are in that relationship until the delivery of an abrupt wake-up call that most viewers may not fully anticipate.
     Heavenly Forest begins with narration from Makoto Segawara (Hiroshi Tamaki), a young Japanese man on his way to New York for the first time to reunite with his closest friend and presumably his first love, Shizuru Satonaka (Aoi Miyazaki). She's sent him a letter to inform him of the grand opening of an exhibit showcasing her photography, and Makoto is eager to see her after a long absence.
     The film then flashes back to Makoto's college days, eventually showing us his first meeting with Shizuru. With her dorky glasses, a serious case of bedhead, and a quirky, altogether questionable fashion sense, Shizuru is undeniably set up as a social outcast. Certainly, Shizuru isn't exactly "Ugly Betty" (she is played by the fetching Aoi Miyazaki after all), but in dress, appearance and attitude, she is unquestionably different from the popular girls at her school. Of course, Makoto isn't exactly GQ handsome either, as he's an extremely awkward and shy young man, in no small part due to a curious rash that requires a generous application of ointment each day.
     A budding photographer himself, Makoto eventually introduces Shizuru to the world of photography by taking her to a secluded location he has been exploring privately. Hidden by a "No Tresspassing" sign, this forest becomes a private sanctuary for the two, as they both become fast friends, despite their previous social awkwardness.
     But while it's clear that these two share an unmistakable chemistry, Makoto has a crush on Miyuki (Meisa Kuroki), a more traditionally beautiful, girl next door/prom queen-type. Eventually, Makoto falls into Miyuki's circle of friends, and the typical "geek who somehow makes it with the cool crowd" plot turn goes immediately into effect. Of course, they make fun of Shizuru, and she overhears, causing a rift between she and Makoto. Eventually, they mend fences, and she tries to befriend Miyuki, even though Shizuru has fallen head over heels in love with Makoto.
     If you think all of this sounds familiar, you're right. Just go rent 1987's John Hughes-written Some Kind of Wonderful to see this kind of storyline at its most earnest or check out Not Another Teen Movie for a dead-on skewering of the "Ugly Pretty Girl" plotline that has turned up in numerous teen movies since the 1980s. But even with these two reference points in mind, it's notable that Heavenly Forest actually changes things up a bit. Sure, the "cool crowd" may come across as jerks at first, but they actually turn out to be Makoto's most faithful friends rather than superficial preppies. Miyuki, the seemingly one-dimensional object of Makoto's affection, is shown to have layers herself. And while the whole Makoto-Shizuru relationship may seem to touch on all these teen movie clichés, what is most remarkable is the way in which Heavenly Forest only seems interested in raising the possibility of the clichés, before dropping them immediately in favor of what audiences really want: a story of two people getting to know each other and falling in love. Bad romances rely on cheap, manufactured drama to drive their plots, but Heavenly Forest is content to center on its characters instead.
     Perhaps that's what makes the emotional sucker punch that comes late in the narrative so hard to take. Expectations are dashed in a way that would've been telegraphed in a lesser film, but are suitably disguised here. Certainly, the signs are there, but Heavenly Forest does a masterful job in making you believe otherwise. A good action movie will convince an audience that the lead protagonist might not make it despite what we all know usually happens in action films. A similar sort of suspension of disbelief occurs in this film, although skewed in another direction. I quickly placed Heavenly Forest in the genre of "Pure Love," but one would not necessarily know that as they are watching the film. Is it a romantic comedy? A romantic drama? An honest-to-goodness tearjerker? Answer: all of the above.
     Although the plot twist is infuriating at first, the filmmakers are actually able to turn the whole melodrama into a positive. The way in which the film concludes borders on formula (at least the last half-dozen or so "Pure Love" films I've watched conclude with the reading of a letter), but Heavenly Forest has so totally invested the audience in the lives of its characters that it's able to conclude in a way that is almost as satisfying as the ending one might've initially anticipated.
     From a filmmaking standpoint, Heavenly Forest is beautifully shot and well-constructed, but its fate as a successful romance hinges on the performances of its actors. Hiroshi Tamaki does a fine job as the geeky Makoto, a feat which is only truly brought to light when comparing the sequences set during his college years and those taking place in New York. In the past, everything about his body language suggests an awkward dork, but without resorting to any sort of reality-breaking exaggeration. Similarly, in the present day scenes, he comes across believably a mature and undeniably changed man. The transformation is remarkable, and it allows the last scene to resonate in a way it might not otherwise.
     The real standout, however, is the film's leading lady, Aoi Miyazaki. Granted, in Heavenly Forest, she's got a smile that could light up an entire room and she's probably the most adorable she's ever looked in any of her previous films, but it's not like the actress tries to coast on mere cutesiness or, even worse, sickly sweet histrionics as other young actresses have. Miyazaki has an undeniable screen presence, and the various emotional states her character goes through are portrayed in an entirely believable fashion. Both in terms of her character and performance, Aoi Miyazaki anchors the narrative, and when she is off-screen, her absence is greatly felt.
     Despite my reservations about these sorts of tearjerkers and my fervent belief that filmmakers should start coming up with better ways to resolve these "Pure Love" films (and they perhaps had little choice since this is adapted from a novel), Heavenly Forest remains a winning example of the genre. It's definitely worth a look, if for no other reason than the charming, undeniably magnetic performance of Aoi Miyazaki. (Calvin McMillin, 2007)
Availability: DVD (Taiwan)
Region 3 NTSC
2-Disc Set
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Track
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English, Japanese, Traditional Chinese Subtitles
Various Extras, Press Kit, Set of Photos
  Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen