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Strawberry Shortcakes
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The four women of Strawberry Shortcakes.
Year: 2006  
Director: Hitoshi Yazaki  
  Producer: Takashi Asai
  Cast: Chizuru Ikewaki, Noriko Nakagoshi, Yuko Nakamura, Toko Iwase (Kiriko Nananan), Ryo Kase, Masanobu Ando, Seminosuke Murasugi, Kiyomi Ito, Tamiyasu Cho, Ayaka Maeda, Tomomi Miyashita, Asami Katsura, Mai Takahashi, Kenichi Yajima, Youko Ishino, Kouen Okumura, Ei Takatori, Taro Suwa, Hitomi Nakahara, Kazushi Hosaka, Akito Inui.
  The Skinny: Kiriko Nananan's popular manga comes to the big screen in Hitoshi Yazaki's impressive film adaptation. Defying its cutie pie title, Strawberry Shortcakes is a charming, sometimes disturbing, but always engaging look at love and loneliness in the big city.
Review by Calvin McMillin:      Don't let the cutesy-sounding title fool you; Strawberry Shortcakes is by no means mere kiddie fodder. Based on the manga Sweet Cream and Red Strawberries by Kiriko Nananan, this eye-opening adult drama takes a surprisingly frank look at life, sex, and loneliness through the eyes of four women in modern Japan.
     Although crisscrossing through the lives of four extremely different women might seem like a recipe for disaster from a narrative standpoint, Strawberry Shortcakes takes its quartet of female leads and splits them into two manageable pairs, fleshing each one out at length. The first duo is comprised of Satoko (Chizuru Ikewaki) and Akiyo, both of whom work for the same escort service dubbed "Heaven's Gate." Looking like a girl handpicked from a Morning Musume spin-off group, Satoko is a plucky single gal who's desperate to find true love after suffering a devastating break-up back during her teenage years. Stuck in a dead-end job as a receptionist for Heaven's Gate and fending off the advances of her louse of a boss, Satoko is hoping for some divine intervention to change her luck.
     Rounding out this pair is Akiyo (Yuko Nakamura), an elegant-looking call girl who's looking to make some serious cash and will even go so far as to volunteer to take on the more disgusting and dangerous customers that most girls at Heaven's Gate are wise to avoid. Akiyo is apparently saving up her dough to purchase a condo, but this isn't a dream of upward mobility per se - she's actually interested in a place on the fifth floor because she plans to commit suicide at the first sign of senility. Akiyo also sleeps in a coffin, so you can imagine she has a few nutty ideas about life. Even so, none of this is played for laughs as Akiyo is practically numb to life, aside from her one joy: having a few drinks with Kikuchi (Masanobu Ando), an old college buddy who has no clue about Akiyo's true feelings for him.
     The two remaining characters in the film are a couple of roommates who are, at least on the surface, complete polar opposites. Toko (played by Kiriko Nananan herself under the name Toko Iwase), a moody artist who is struggling with a broken heart and a serious case of bulimia, as she presses on to complete an art assignment that is long overdue. Chihiro (Noriko Nakagoshi) is a perky office lady, the prom queen-type who's just looking to get married and have a family. She's stuck in a dead-end "relationship" with a salaryman named Nagai (Ryo Kase), which only results in a serious of increasingly degrading encounters with this man. Nakagoshi's performance as Chihiro is surprisingly nuanced and achingly desperate.
     Upon reiterating the details of these characters and revisiting my own thoughts about the film, I have to admit that I wondered early on which character would win the apparent "suicide derby" that the film seemed to be staging, as each character leads a depressing life with seemingly no positive end in sight. And yet, Strawberry Shortcakes isn't a story that wallows in that sadness. The film doesn't pile on the melodrama, but instead goes for the slow reveal, peeling back the layers of its characters and showing them at their most vulnerable. At times, there are shocking moments involving bulimia, brutality, and sexuality, but they are presented in a matter-of-fact fashion, as to not further sensationalize the matter, no matter how horrifying or disturbing the moment. At its bleakest, Strawberry Shortcakesis a film about the everyday cruelties of life, whether in word or deed. "Hell," as Sarte once wrote, "is other people."
     But even with these unsettling moments sprinkled throughout, the truth is that Strawberry Shortcakes also has a keen sense of humor about itself, and Yamazaki often displays a penchant for a certain cinematic sleight of hand, as we'll find that a flashback isn't really a flashback or a what is implied in a scene isn't quite what we first thought, etc. Furthermore, one expects that the four characters would be engaged in some serious crossover in storylines based on fortuitous "coincidences," but while the pairs do come close to bumping into one another, it never quite materializes in the way one expects. Even in the end, Strawberry Shortcakes denies us that wish for ultimate closure, as it ends just an instant before the desired moment of unity occurs. It's a directorial choice that's pretty much par for the course in terms of Yamazaki's approach to the material, as he constantly plays with our expectations as audience members. In other instances, the film will suggest or hint at something, but never makes an explicit statement, leaving it up to the viewer to decide the implications of a character's words or gestures.
     Performance-wise, there isn't a weak link among the four actresses. If I had to pick a standout, it would probably be Yuko Nakamura as Akiyo. Her character is perhaps the most complex of the four, as she finds herself projecting a façade of elegant professionalism in her very sordid line of work, often subjecting herself to degradation after degradation, all in the hopes of bringing herself one step closer to her suicidal dream. But her character has a soft side as well, one in which she dispenses with the makeup and dons loose T-shirts, some old jeans, and a charming pair of glasses every time she meets her not-so-platonic pal. There is something elusive and mysterious about her, as is the case with Strawberry Shortcakes as a whole. Although things certainly end with a measure of happiness, I suppose, the film thankfully doesn't tie everything up in a neat little bow. And while many of the film's characters are forced to endure lives more bitter than sweet, there's no doubt that Strawberry Shortcakes will leave viewers wanting more - and most definitely in a good way. (Calvin McMillin, 2007)
Awards: 2007 Yokohama Film Festival
• Winner - Best Supporting Actress (Yuko Nakamura)
• Winner - Best Cinematography (Isao Ishii)
Availability: DVD (JPN)
Region 2 NTSC
16 x 9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Removable English and Japanese Subtitles
Various Extras
  Copyright ©2002-2017 Ross Chen