By Yang Sung-jin
Published on The Korea Herald: Oct. 14, 2004
She inserts a tape into a Sony Walkman cassette player. When the tape begins to roll, she is frozen on the street. People are moving behind, but she just stands there, dumbfounded, extremely shaken up.
With the light changing in a subtle fashion, the mysteriously lonely glow of her eyes turns into searing sadness. Seconds later, a stream of tears run down on her pale face. The audience gets no explanation for her action, yet the scene is inexplicably powerful and maddeningly moving.
That’s a masterly performance of Kou Shibasaki, who plays a supporting role in the opening scene of “Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World,” a new Japanese romance blockbuster that opened on Friday amid relatively subdued public attention.
It is remarkable that Shibasaki, one of the most celebrated Japanese actresses (she paired up with entertainer extraordinaire Takura Kimuya in a TV drama “Good Luck”), is not a main character in this movie directed by Isao Yukisada.
Yet her role is bigger than it seems. The movie sold more than 7 million tickets in Japan in just 10 weeks of its formal opening this year, a truly eye-opening record that is greatly bolstered by the original best-selling novel.
When the book was first published, nobody but a female bookstore worker in Yokohama paid attention. When she read it and put an advertising poster saying “I’m crying because of this book” in the front window, the title saw its sales surge. And a momentum, which is still roaring at this point, came from Shibasaki who also read the book and confessed that she finished the book in one sitting while crying throughout her read. Afterward, the sales soared, crushing all the records. More than 35 million copies — a breathtaking achievement by any standard — are estimated to have been sold in Japan so far.
The question is whether the feverish craze will be repeated in Korea, one of the most dynamic cinema markets in Asia in recent years. Previous Japanese romantic flicks like “Love Letter” were largely disappointing on the box office partly because ardent fans here already watched many of renowned films through a pirated VHS version or a digital format over the Web.
This time around, however, a pirated camcorder or Divx format of “Crying Out Love” is not circulating on the Web — at least for now — and a horde of fans are simply flocking to the theaters. Some are watching it over and over, showing signs of “addiction,” says Film Space, a marketing company for the film.
What makes this movie so special? Well, this is a legitimate question, but there is little time to ponder this subject during the 138 minutes, because, especially if you’re impressed by Shibasaki’s emotion-packed opening scene, you are likely to get hooked to the story and be fiendishly busy wiping off a continuous flow of tears from your face.
Sakutaro (Takao Osawa) suddenly finds his fiance missing without leaving any clues. In search of her, he heads for their hometown, Shikoku, a place where he experienced his first love with another girl named Aki (Masami Nagasawa).
Wherever he goes in the small yet beautiful town, he cannot help but to notice the presence of his former love, and the movie unfolds a tragic tale that happened 17 years ago.
At age 16, young Sakutaro (Mirai Moriyama) falls for his classmate Aki, a popular and talented girl. Their affection, however, faced a bumpy road as Aki’s parents, who didn’t want their daughter to talk to boys, blocked the use of her telephone. Yearning for communication, she devises a plan to exchange recorded cassette messages.
They record what they like in everyday life or what they feel toward each other and share their innermost thoughts, weaving a fresh type of romance via a cassette tape recorder (which was cutting-edge technology in this 1980s setting).
Unfortunately, Aki comes down with leukemia. As her life is racing to an end, she desperately wants to pull off her dream — visiting Ululu, Australia, the sacred ground of Aboriginals or what she calls “the center of the world.” Sakutaro attempts to make her dream come true by going to a photo studio to have their passport pictures taken, and, for fun, pose for a photo of their imaginary wedding. On a stormy night he secretly spirits Aki away from the hospital to the airport, but all the flights are canceled due to a fierce typhoon.
Back to the present, Sakutaro is wandering around the town, tracing the memories scattered from each and every corner. At one magical moment, he stands listening to a piece of piano number played by Aki, and they embrace each other. The man suddenly changes into a boy, and the girl, with her big, sad eyes closed tight, will not let go of his embrace.
In fact, their romance remains unfinished because the last recorded message is yet to be delivered. Aki, right before her death, leaves a message to be delivered to Sakutaro, but it gets missing somehow, and the plot twist toward the end of the film explains why.
In all fairness, the story itself is far from revolutionary, but the way it is presented on the silver screen turns up the emotional pitch gradually to a point of perfect empathy with the ill-fated lovers — an evolutionary process that can be compared with the formula of “Love Letter,” a 1995 film directed by Shunji Iwai, which still has a huge following in Korea and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, the Korean translation of the original novel has sold some 200,000 copies, jumping to the best-seller list overnight. After all, the irreversible loss of love appeals universally. You don`t have to explain why you are crying, as long as tears come from the center of your world.