Strawberry Shortcakes

The New York Asian Film festival kicks off this weekend and with a new addition!

Grady Hendrix and his gang were able to include Strawberry Shortcakes in this year’s fest. And even though it’s a 2006 movie, they all agreed that it was an important one that all of us in this fair city deserve to see.

Strawberry Shortcakes is based on Kiriko Nananan’s josei manga by the same name – although the title was changed to Sweet Cream and Red Berries for licensing in the U.S. Apparently that saccharine smelling pink-haired doll in the bonnet and apron has a copyright on the name Strawberry Shortcake. Yawn. (But not really because I’ve always loved Strawberry Shortcake and her stinky gang of smelly gal pals.)

It’s a very simple premise and one that will most likely sound familiar – the lives of four women in the city – Tokyo. But what emerges is completely different. I read the manga long ago, before I started watching Sex and the City reruns, and it wasn’t until Grady mentioned it that I even made the comparison.

It’s not Sex in the City. Or if it is, it’s a slow, somber Sex in the City, without the self-conscious panic and frenetic laughs of the New York version. Strawberry Shortcakes – the movie and manga both – focus more intently on the lives of the women with the theme of “alone” (not loneliness) the thread that pulls the film along. The four women aren’t friends, and in fact, hardly know each other, but their lives do occasionally intersect.

Chihiro is an office lady, fresh faced and ready for marriage. Her roommate, Toko (played by Nananan herself) is a successful commercial artist who illustrates book covers. Akiyo is a prostitute for a call-girl service, Heaven’s Gate, and Suzuki is the daytime receptionist there.

The direction and cinematography of the movie reflect Nananan’s story well. The camera acts as a quiet observer, not voyeur, allowing viewer to watch with curiousity, not expectation. Following the women as they work, drive home on a moped, search for god, a boyfriend, their lives unravel gently, one piece of cloth at a time.

Toko moved in with Chihiro after breaking up with her boyfriend – and deals with the pain of the break-up and the pressures of work by binging and purging. Chihiro, who knows nothing of Toko’s bulimia, is flighty and shallow, a popular girl with many boyfriends who simultaneously admires and resents Toko’s fame and success as an illustrator.

Akiyo works as a prostitute, while pining for a college buddy who seems clueless about her interest in him. On her day off, she leaves her business-suit-over-lingerie work uniform at home and wears a t-shirt and jeans to meet up with him.

Suzuki, meanwhile, looks for love, praying to an iridescent rock that she’s found to help her find a boyfriend. “I don’t mean just anyone.” She tells the rock after her manager smacks her on the ass and asks her out to dinner. “I meant someone special.”

The movie doesn’t follow Nananan’s script exactly but makes changes that strengthen the moving picture version. Suzuki, who in the manga is a weak character, wandering through life and living a quiet day-to-day existence, is much more fleshed out in the movie, and is developed as one of the anchors.

Akiyo, whose character is developed along a more bifurcated existence of call-girl/everyday girl, wears her perversions more outwardly in the movie, sleeping in a coffin, walking through the cemetery on her way home from work. But the approach to the overall narrative is direct so that everything is treated with an even hand. There is no sensationalism or dramatics in Akiyo’s nihilistic approach to life – “Buy a condo, on the 5th floor, then throw myself out the window before I go senile” – just as her job is not sexy, it’s just sex.

Likewise, Suzuki’s after-work life of returning home for a couple of beers by herself is a quiet celebration of living alone, without a boyfriend, despite her strong desire for one, and her past habit of settling for less instead of settling for a life on her own.

The only flaw in the movie is the relationship between Toko and Chihiro whose antagonism towards each other is played down in the movie and will easily be missed with the exception of key moments – when Chihiro rips up one of Toko’s sketches, when Toko buries Chihiro’s hamster and says aloud “Chihiro should clean up her own mess.”

In the manga, Chihiro’s jealousy of Toko and her small manipulations are more prominent. Chihiro returns home from work to tell Toko that her ex-boyfriend has already started dating someone new, or that he’s gotten his new girlfriend pregnant and will be marrying her – all with the intent to see her suffer. “All my entire world amounted to was water cooler gossip.” Chihiro thinks to herself. “When I think about how much I hate my own little world, I hate Toko’s great big world even more.”

This aspect of their relationship, of intense jealousy, of frustration with career and boyfriends, is lacking in the movie, and throws the ending off balance. One of the strongest and most brilliant moments in the movie is how Toko and Chihiro resolve their hatred towards each other, and how their hatred is treated as a relationship that would equal love.  “I really hated you, Chihiro.”  Toko says as they hold hands in a departing train.  “Me, too.” Chihiro smiles, neither of them ready to let go.

On the flipside, Akiyo’s morbid outlook on life is balanced by the end, her question in the opening of the film “Do you think there’s a god?” is thrown on its head, when Akiyo, who’s plans for death are more articulated than her plans for life, finds a reason to live. “I don’t need god.” She says at the end, as she throws Suzuki’s god/rock into the ocean.

I’m not sure how resonant Strawberry Shortcakes will be with American audiences. There’s no glitz, no glamour. It doesn’t act as a two-hour infomercial or advertisement for a lifestyle of shopping and shoes, or even of “having it all.” The charm of Strawberry Shortcakes is it’s simple desires and lack of ambition. Instead of an overbearing “I want” the movie takes a tone of measured steps and small victories. Toko’s ambition isn’t to become a famous illustrator, but for people to value her work the way she does. Her day-to-day is a mix of subduing her inner demons and giving in to them.

Chihiro’s dream is to get married and be a wife, but more immediately, what she wants is for her boyfriend to tell her that they’re breaking up. “You won’t answer my calls, you won’t see me.” She says once she’s cornered him. “I get it…But I want to hear you say it.”

The movie ends on a high note and overall acts as a brilliant accompaniment to the comic. And any fan of Nananan will have the chance of watching her sketch and paint.

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3 Comments »

  1. patrick said

    nice thx for mentioning this, wouldn’t have heard about it otherwise

  2. ErinF said

    Have you read the manga…?

  3. kai-ming said

    I have – it was slated to be published a few years ago by CPM. To be honest, i don’t know if it ever made it to release, but it’s a worthwhile manga and one that I hope will make it onto shelves here eventually.

    Nananan has such an acute sense of relationships, the nuances, and how people relate to themselves in the quieter, more vulnerable moments.

    I don’t know where the license is now, but hopefully this won’t be the last we see of it.

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