It's a gentle Japanese movie about the dead coming back to life. It's not horror. No one wants to eat anyone. The resurrected are exactly as they were when they were alive and don't appear unless someone who loved them really wants them to.
They're just alive again, as themselves. They resume their lives, but obviously this is going to stir up emotions and disrupt the lives of people who'd thought they could at last move on. They hadn't been expecting their loved ones to return, so there are some slightly delicate situations even when everyone involved is overwhelmingly happy.
I liked it, although slightly less than I'd been expecting. Tomoko had recommended it, you see. I don't think she'd seen it personally, but she'd heard good things about it. Anyway, I think it loses it a bit in the final act and it's another example of that understated, slightly delicate storytelling that can seem underwhelming if you're not used to Japanese cinema. It potters. It follows its characters at a discreet distance and doesn't push its plot in your face. You're being pulled through not by a strong narrative, but instead more by down-to-earth realism and emotional honesty. Personally I like this style of filmmaking, but some people find it boring and/or dull.
The upside though is that this film has a light touch, is sometimes funny and can do strong emotions without hitting us over the head with them. Apparently it did well at the box office and I'm not surprised. It's very good.
We begin with a senile old baggage who's going to claim that a six-year-old boy is her son. This is clearly impossible. Nope, it's the truth. Impossible things are about to become quite common in this town in the mountains, which is why Tsuyoshi Kusanagi has been sent to investigate. He works for the Japanese Ministry of Welfare and he's a big part of how this film manages to keep its feet so firmly on the ground. He's initially sceptical, as you or I would be. He discusses how to handle the press. Halfway through, he finds the cause of what's going on, except that it's the kind of explanation that answers nothing and only invites a million more questions. I liked this a lot. It's enigmatic, but also big and weird enough that I accepted it as capable of causing what we'd seen. Unnecessary explanations would have damaged the movie.
What it has instead are simple rules about when a dead person can come back. That too is good. The movie lays down clear criteria and sticks to them, even when you're wondering if it might be tempted not to.
It's all about the actors, obviously. The film has a dangerous number of children and teenagers, but this only trips it up for a couple of seconds with that teenage bully who can't act at all. The children tend to get no dialogue, which is sensible, while on the upside there's a charming bit with a tiny girl at a birthday party. She's too young to understand anything at all and her reaction is real. As for the adult cast, there are a lot of well known faces here, albeit often in TV as much as in movies. Kusanagi is unfortunately a singer in SMAP, but he's also a decent actor and has a distinctive, angular face. In real life he's probably best known for his love of South Korea and for creating an online meme in 2009 by saying "What's wrong with being naked?" to the police after his arrest for public indecency. Apparently he was dancing in a park.
I most enjoyed Yuko Takeuchi. She's been compared both with Meg Ryan and Audrey Hepburn, which I don't think is unreasonable. Without necessarily being the best all-round actress, she's enormously charming and can do a lot of things very well indeed. She can evoke relationship almost single-handedly, for instance. Her scenes with Kusanagi are adorable and the heavy lifting there is almost all Takeuchi's. Here she's helped by playing someone who's so friendly and vivacious, but even so hers is clearly the most watchable and empathic performance in the movie, by a long way.
There's plenty of good stuff from the others, though. Keiichi Yamamoto is funny and lovable as the fat schlub who's in love with Yuriko Ishida, although this is unfortunately the same Yamamoto whose career ended in 2006 after an incident with a seventeen-year-old. Sho Aikawa appears, whom I recognised from his Takashi Miike films and mistakenly assumed he was playing a yakuza. I thought that doctor was overacting in his first scene and he threw me for a loop, but his later scenes with his deaf wife are the most beautiful in the movie.
I also liked the nastier bits. One of the resurrected had committed suicide. I also laughed at the bit where Ishida's response to Aikawa's return is to shout at him. This film doesn't feel syrupy. It's heartwarming and you can tell what a difference this has made to lots of lives, but it's not afraid to create more bittersweet situations too.
On a structural level, the script isn't great. It's like a TV mini-series, not a movie. We're just following a bunch of people as they have their lives overturned... which is fine. I liked it. Emotionally and thematically, it's rich. However the ending is weak and I could have lived without the pop concert in particular, despite a couple of nice touches in there. Overall it still works and I liked the postscripts, but this isn't so much a narrative as it is a study of character and theme. Do you really want what you think you want? When does looking backwards start to get in the way of living your life?
I think I went in with slightly mis-set expectations, but I'd still call this an enjoyable film. At what it does best, it's strong. Incidentally wikipedia thinks DreamWorks is doing an English-language remake, called Rainbow Bridge and to be released in 2013. Obviously Hollywood is overflowing with movies that never happen and we'll wait and see what happens to this one, but I can believe it. I'd also be interested in seeing whether the remake turned into a triumph or a train wreck. Could easily be either. The Japanese original isn't flawless, but it's doing a lot of crucial things well and delivering a film with heart. It's modest, simple and sometimes even witty. I'm fond of it.