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Star Reformer

Kou Shibasaki and Yuji Oda in Star Reformer.
AKA: Kencho no Hoshi  
AKA: The Prefectural Star  
Year: 2006  
Director: Hiroshi Nishitani  
  Writer: Shinsuke Sato (based on a novel by Nozomi Katsura)
  Cast: Yuji Oda, Kou Shibasaki, Koji Ishizaka, Hisashi Igawa, Gaku Yamada, Bengal, Mahiru Konno, Toru Masuoka, Jin Nakayama, Setsutan Oh, Kaoru Okunuki, Wakako Sakai, Kunanosuke Sasaki, Toshihiro Wada, Kenichi Yajima, Sayaka Yamaguchi
  The Skinny: This small-scale Japanese comedy-drama works thanks to its stars and its swipes at the status quo. It would also work better as a television drama than an overlong feature film.
Kevin Ma:
     In Japan, bureaucracy rules the government. Deals are made on personal connections, benefits are waived due to technicalities, and politicians talk in false polite tongues. That's the world depicted in Star Reformer, a dramedy that pits two major Japanese stars against each other in a battle values? Yuji Oda (of the Bayside Shakedown series) plays Nomura, a heartless and ambitious mid-level bureaucrat working at a nameless prefectural government office. He has mastered the art of bureaucracy - he wrote an entire manual on how to write official letters, and he even refuses to help a homeless man on the technicality that the homeless can't prove their residency in the prefecture. Thanks to his hard work, Nomura is on the way to the top, and believes that he will be heading up an expensive government-sponsored local retirement resort project since he's engaged to the daughter of the construction company's president. In his attempt to get on a major politician's good side, he innocently suggests that the controversial resort project should be built with the "citizen's know-how" to fend off anti-development interest groups.
     Of course, no comments are ever innocent, as his advice causes the government to implement a project in which bureaucrats are sent to work in local businesses in order to gain perspective from "the real world." Needless to say, Nomura is chosen as one of the participants. Sent to a run-down local supermarket, the star from the prefectural office is forced to work under Ninomiya (Kou Shibasaki from The Sinking of Japan), a young tough-as-nails veteran part-timer who bosses people around like the supermarket's manager since the real manager doesn't actually do any managing. Naturally, Ninomiya is the opposite of Nomura - her first priority is making the customers happy, and she runs the store by being good on her feet, not by memorizing manuals and fire codes. Quickly mocked by store workers as "Mr. Prefecture," Nomura is determined to secure his place in the resort project, so he unsuccessfully tries to outdo the status quo in his own way. However, his suggestions for reforms are rejected, and his attempt to make quality expensive lunchboxes in order to distance himself from some of the supermarket's shadier practices fails miserably.
     By Nomura's initial failures, one might expect this film to take a hard antagonistic position against bureaucracy, as its absurdities are pointed out again and again throughout the film. However, when the film gets the point where everything comes crashing down for both protagonists, Star Reformer actually suggests that some kind of compromise can be reached between ideals and practicality. It's fairly obvious that the filmmakers don't want to make a biting commentary on the system, especially considering that the climax involves Nomura giving a noble public speech about government accountability in front of his colleagues. Most of Star Reformer remains a gentle, audience-friendly jab at the system rather a sharp stab. However, its surprisingly pessimistic conclusion, which thankfully undoes any false note the aforementioned speech might ring, clearly shows whose side the filmmakers are on.
     Its somewhat gentle nature might explain why Star Reformer might make a better television drama. It features two stars that have successful careers on television, a setting ripe for building supporting characters and subplots, swipes at the system to make people think, a time limit for the narrative (the personnel exchange program lasts six months), and even character conflicts that might build into romantic entanglements that would build the show's emotional core. In the film, most of those aspects are somewhat underdeveloped because of its focus on Nomura and Ninomiya. A prolonged television drama would flesh out established characters and hinted situations (such as the "undesirable workers" being put in the kitchen) to the point where the supermarket can be more than just a setting for a movie pitch. Then again, Japanese viewers might not want to tune in for 11 weeks of their local supermarkets and governments failing their jobs miserably. After seeing what the supermarket kitchen does during food preparation ("Fishes taste better fried twice"), I will never look at Japanese supermarket food the same way again.
     Still, Star Reformer should not be undermined as a solid piece of cinema, either. Directed by television veteran Hiroshi Nishitani, the film is confidently directed without much visual flair. It's a wise choice, considering that the film is trying to sell characters and situations, not dazzling camera tricks. On the other hand, Nishitani's television style shows when handling the film's emotional core. Star Reformer is at its most engaging when dealing with Nomura and his gradual involvement with running the supermarket, and Nishitani manages to build a consistent pace. But then the filmmakers spend much of the second act showing the characters crumbling, thus setting up their redemption in the third act. In trying to make the audience care about the characters, Nishitani drags out each revelation and character downfall as if he was still directing a drama. At 130 minutes, Star Reformer needs to make a choice as to whether the film is about principles or heart. Perhaps it was due to audience demand, or perhaps it was due to the assumption that they could pull it off, but Nishitani and screenwriter Shinsuke Sato failed to make that choice.
     Fortunately, Star Reformer also chooses to rely heavily on its main attraction: the stars. After decades of playing the Japanese white-collar worker, Yuji Oda has perfected the role of Japan's favorite salaryman. Blending a bit of arrogance with the typical Japanese office worker brand of passiveness, Oda pulls off the demanding role of Nomura without much difficulty; he even manages to make Nomura somewhat likable when the script fails to do so. Meanwhile, Kou Shibasaki is naturally likable, as the filmmakers not only portray her as a hard worker, but also a responsible guardian to her younger brother. Nevertheless, Shibasaki adds to her undemanding role by adding a hint of youthfulness that lies beneath her tough exterior. However, that also makes the age difference between Oda and Shibasaki all the more glaring, taking away much of the chemistry needed to build their romance. Of course, the film would not work at all if not for the stars' respective performances, and they both deliver the goods. Even if Star Reformer doesn't manage to effectively teach a lesson about bureaucracy or how to make a film seem more cinematic than television, it can at least make a point about the importance of stars in contemporary cinema. (Kevin Ma 2007)
Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC (marked as Region 3)
Kam & Ronson
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 5.1
Removable Chinese and English Subtitles
  Copyright 2002-2017 Ross Chen