Friday, December 12, 2008
REVIEW: Shindô (Prodigy)
Running time: 120 min.
Reviewed by Chris MaGee
Wao (Ken’ichi Matsuyama) wants to be a great pianist. He spends hours practicing above his parents’ fruit and vegetable market much to the chagrin of the woman who runs the cheap clothing store next door. Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, it’s all just noise to her, but for Wao it’s an obsession, nearly a religion and most importantly it’s his ticket out of hefting crates of apples and daikon around the family store. His parents don’t begrudge Wao his dream in fact they wholeheartedly support their 19-year-old son. They want more for him than the store as well, but they also see how difficult the piano is for him. His fingers stab at those 88 keys and his playing is competent but not artful, halting were it should flow, so if Wao wants to gain entry into the music conservatory it’s practice, practice and more practice.
Uta (Riko Narumi) is a great pianist. As a toddler she could read music before she could speak and when she sat down in front of the piano she made the years of hard work and effort of her composer father (Hidetoshi Nishijima) seem, well, like child’s play. Not that he minded. Uta holds happy memories of trips with her father to “The Piano Graveyard,” a large warehouse filled with pianos where the two of them would spend hours moving from one to another looking for the perfect instrument. Those memories seem bittersweet now though. Since her father’s death Uta and her mother have had to struggle to make ends meet and crammed into a small apartment, but Uta avoids spending time there, just like she avoids her mother, the white gloves she makes Uta wear, the endless piano practices and her own innate talent. All of these things set Uta apart from the other kids in school. All she really wants to be is an average 13-year-old girl.
It’s the meeting of these two young people, one trying to use the piano to achieve his dreams and the other trying to escape its powerful influence that forms the story of Koji Hagiuda’s 2007 film adaptation of Akira Saso’s novel “Shindô (Prodigy)”. Passing by Wao’s parent’s store one night she discovers this determined young pianist and informs him matter of factly that his playing “sucks,” but she offers to help. The deal that Wao and his parents have struck with their neighbor is that he can only practice until 7:00 pm, so Uta takes him where he can practice through the night if need be and where she will help him prepare for his conservatory entrance exam: the house that she grew up in and her father’s piano.
Now, I know what you’re thinking at this point: not only will Wao get into the conservatory, but he will triumph as a pianist with the help of Uta, who through helping this fellow musician will rediscover her true talents. They’ll fall in love and the end of the film will be sunshine, light and of course a swell of piano music. Well, that’s not what happens… exactly. Yes, Uta helps Wao gain entrance into the conservatory, but his struggles don’t end there. He’s still not a gifted player and he must work harder than ever. And yes, Uta does come back to the piano through her tutoring of Wao, but we quickly discover that it’s not just her mother’s insistence and her peers’ teasing that have kept her from playing. Although Hagiuda and screenwriter Kosuke Mukai don’t ever make it explicit they strongly imply that Uta’s father as mentally ill and committed suicide and that Uta fears that she may have more in common with her father than being musically adept.
“Shindô” could have been a sickly sweet teen romance, and while it’s obvious that Wao and Uta have feelings for each other, their age difference and the gulf that separates their musical abilities keeps their hormones in check and provides the audience with a truly touching and surprisingly grown up look at just how difficult it can be for people, young or old, to come to terms with their talents and strengths, but also their faults and their weaknesses. I can only hope that with the popularity of Ken’ichi Matsuyama’s “Death Note” and “Detroit Metal City” that this quiet, but very effective drama will get picked up for some kind of North American distribution.