Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Video Girl Ai (1991) Movie Review

Upon discovering that the girl of his dreams is infatuated with his lifelong best friend, 16 year old Yota Moteuchi unexpectedly mourns her heartbreak upon the friend's open admission that he simply cannot return these feelings of hers. Witnessing something of a repeat of heartbreaks past, Moteuchi stumbles upon a magical video store, where he picks up a VHS tape containing what promises to be a "comfort girl" video featuring the cute and vibrant Ai Amano, ready to cheer him up. What at the offset seems to be a singularly sad moment in any young man's life, his VCR glitches, not only causing the genki starlet to appear out of his television, and into his life, but has altered a few things about her personality. Still cute & endlessly perky, she is also incredibly forceful, tomboyish, and quite inexperienced in regards to human life. Determined to help Yota with his unrequited emotions, the tale begins. The catch? Yota's malfunctioning VCR must remain on to keep Ai from vanishing, but tape is limited, and her days turning the young man's life into a carnival are seemingly finite.

Thus begins Ryu Kaneda's refreshingly earnest adaptation of Video Girl Ai, a long lost cinematic relic of the early 1990s which finally finds itself within the island of the Kaijyu, just in time for Valentine's Day 2012. Amazing how incredibly close it all hews to Masakazu Katsuura's original source material, which originally ran in Shonen Jump from 1989 through 1992, and was eventually a part of Animerica Magazine's english run several years later. It remains one of the formative manga works with a subsequent Original Video Animation series that became something of a staple in many an anime fan's collection of the time. And as a live action film, it achieves that rare state of being that in many ways meets the best tones of the original work without tipping itself into overt cartoonishness, or fan pandering. In fact, much of the film's strength simply lies in pure economic filmmaking, and in sheer timing of it's production which perfectly captures the latter days of a pastel colored Japan, and the possibilities still inherent within.

And in the hands of so many other filmmakers, this romantic comedy with a magical/supernatual edge could easily have been treated as some matter of throwaway, but with Kaneda and crew, it becomes an unexpected surprise in how it plays with the very idea of an adaptation, and takes matters in surprisingly charming ways. As Ai (played to the hilt by Kaori Sakagami) attempts to help Yota (Ken Osawa) any way she can, her very essence runs rampant against all that he has grown accustomed to in regards to life around females. Not one to scheme or play games, the once TV confined entity takes in life as a human as if making up for lost time. Taking in moments that stand out to her as benefits to Yota's character, and living life with gusto, she is the very essence that so many are missing even as money seems to be growing on trees around them. Even when discovering a pregnant passerby whilst eating shortcake, she can't seem to contain herself in her curious nature. In fact, Sakagami's performance is one for the books as being one of the most natural transitions from manga page to film I have ever seen.

And this becomes all the more important as one of the glitching VCR's "side effects" is that of strong emotions brewing within the character who has normally been designed to never get personal in any manner toward their tape renting charges. What could have so simply been completely obvious and hackneyed becomes disarmingly complex as Ai's struggles with these feelings lead her to a climax that would have made for a much braver OVA ending.

Also worth noting are Osawa's rendition of Moteuchi (often confused for "Motenai" IE - "dateless"), which is wide-eyed and amiable enough, and Hiromi Hamagichi's Moemi, the object of his initial affections. Both of whom function as something of a mirror for young people in a time period often hampered by image expectations. As such, they work quite well. Especially Osawa, who's Yota is a young man on the verge of finding his own defined place in the world, perhaps in need of that vital last push.

Yota's best friend, the Takashi (Naoki Hosaka) character remains the at times unreliable foil for Yota's wish to make Moemi's wish come true. An infinitely more popular guy, and something of a "school idol" type, Takashi comes off as something of a half-hearted womanizer with just enough hope for his friend to come out of a self-imposed shell of shyness with girls. In fact, this time around it is he who is running away from his true feelings, which in effect throws everyone else's choices into disarray. Kaneda decides to give a character that at times seemed far too aloof in the original comic, a little more of a soul. A choice that in many ways clears up even a few issues I initially had with the manga.

While VGA contains many of the elements of what could be considered an atypical "magical girlfriend" story, what always made it stand out, aside from the exquisite artwork, was in how it at times painfully captures the spirit of the latter economic Bubble period of Japan. And this extends well beyond the obvious trappings, fashions, and music. Moteuchi is something of a prototypical late Showa product in that he finds himself largely incapable of making decisions outside of what media tells him. The film makes decent work of emphasizing this consumer-centric lifestyle by making it clear that Ai is something of an alien entity, but moreso because she is far more spontaneous & unassuming than Yota is normally comfortable with. With Moemi, who more represents another person clearly set within a locked cultural mindset regarding who she feels she must date. Both seem programmed to look at love and relationships without actually fully comprehending what it means. True to not only mores of the era, but of being young in general. The film maintains a great deal of this with surprising sensitivity, and economy for a manga adaptation. (something that rarely if ever happens)

It is perhaps within the wholly original to the film third act that it in many ways finds new ways with which to tinker with the original story, to mostly satisfying results. Entirely free from having to merely play the fantasy-ending card, it instead opts for taking Yota into perhaps more realistic territory. It's in this grounded mindset that the whole feels so much more free to explore theme rather than merely play matters out for pure escapism. The romantic fireworks are clearly there, but it is unexpectedly understated, and more exemplified within the performances of the core leads. It's a wildly rare thing indeed to see a manga come to life, far more ready to play it straight. And for this, it wins massive points.

Finding ways through the clouds of expectation & discovering the value of selflessness continues to be the electric current flowing throughout the fabric of Video Girl Ai, and it does so in a near effortless fashion. While in no manner a perfect piece of work, it is a truly sweet love letter to self-liberation in an era of plastic dreams.

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