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TAKAHIRO HORIE: SENSEI, WOULD YOU SIT BESIDE ME? 先生、私の隣に座っていただけませんか? (2021) 2021 NY Asian Film Festival August 6-22

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HARU KUROKI (TOP), TASUKU EMOTO (BOTTOM) IN SENSEI...

Living for manga

In his recent review of Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me?, Reuben Baron reveals a much more detailed knowledge of Japanese manga than I have. This ins't difficult, since I know next to nothing. Mr. Baron may be right that speculations into the interface between the actual lives and the manga fantasies of real life "manga-kas," might be more interesting than the somewhat bland fantasy that unfolds in this new film. But if I may make bold to say so, he's a bit hard on this charming imagining of such an interface. The film is a bit long, a weakness of many of the NYFF Japanese crop this year. But it's quite engaging - and after the stern solemnity of Yujiro Harumoto's impressive A Balance, made a wonderful palate cleanser.

Toshio (Tasuku Emoto) and Sawako (Haru Kuroki) are what Baron cals a manga "power couple" whose creative and relationship difficulties overlap and combine to, at least, the eminent success of their careers. Toshio appears to be in a long period of creative dryness. Once a good while ago he as Sawako's teacher - hence the "sensei..." line, which has a playful double application. Now it appears they're been married five years, and Toshio has been having an affair with their editor, Chika (Nao Honda). One of the weaknesses of the film is we never see real signs of this affair or any chemistry between the actors playing Toshio and Chika. Rather like manga as seen depicted here, this film seems to be being made up in short spurts.

Emoto, who plays Toshio, is he best actor, with a range of gestures both comic and serious, which is a good thing because Toshio is the character whom we see the most and get the closest to. Toshio and Sawako go to the country to visit Sawako's mother (Jun Fubuki) - in her picture-perfect Japanese country house, whose ample summer coziness one relishes. Everything has a doll-like niftiness in this film, which is one of its charms: it's half-way a manga itself, and that's the point. In fact Haru Kuroki, who plays Sawako, has a doll-like sweetness that verges on the cloying. Not surprisingly, she turns out to have venom in her heart.

The trip to the country is meant to be distraction from the writer's block; Sawako too has it for the moment. She has finished a series, and can't think of a new one. The sojourn soon becomes a solution, after Sawako - somewhat oddly, at such a time and place - begins taking formal driving lessons. At first she reveals a phobia against driving, and can't seem to release the brake and step on the gas. But she perseveres, and soon starts spending all day away at the lessons, where Toshio must leave her and pick her up, and all evening drawing a new manga story. Toshio can't help sneaking peeks at each new sheaf of drawings, which Sawako conveniently leaves on a desk upstairs. Is Sawako making up what is happening, or is it really happening?

I have another question: does manga always consist of these saccharine, cutesy drawings of bland, spiky-haired youths? Does its content ever have any depth? I think the answer is yes, but that's not the kind of manga referenced here. Why is it, though, that the Japanese, who are so known for their historical epics like Kurosawa's Ran or films of sadness and profound redemption like his Ikiru, have such a love of cuteness and fey young men like Yuzuru Hanyu? (I admit I can never get enough of Yuzuru Hanu; but the manga drawings, ick.)

The fun of this film is the way once it gets going it runs back and forth between reality and the manga version, and the new sheaf of manga drawings Toshio peeks at turn into reenactments that may or may not be true. One really does get a sense of how some storytellers, old and new, may fray the line between their own lives and their creative mining of them. The depiction of this state of flux is enabled and made appealing by the gifted acting of Tasuku Emoto as Toshio. With limited material, he delivers a tragicomic range that is a real pleasure to watch.

Sensei, Would You Sit Beside Me? 先生、私の隣に座っていただけませんか?, 118 mins., premiered at the NY Asian Film Festival today, Aug. 15, 2021.

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