The original (and superior) Japanese title is Glass Brain. It's based on a 1971 work by the Father of Manga himself, Osamu Tezuka. I've never actually read any of his work, but this is clearly my loss. Quite apart from his reputation, this is a man who created more than 150,000 pages of comics across more than 700 titles. However in 1971, his activity was particularly frenetic. His studio, Mushi Productions, was in financial trouble and Tezuka was shouldering all its debts personally. (The start of the recession in 1973 would bankrupt it, him and much of the anime industry.) As a result, Tezuka was working like a demon even by his standards and so he turned out a lot of one-shots, of which one was Glass Brain.
It doesn't have any supernatural, horror or science-fiction elements, though. I'm going to be talking about the film, but apparently it's really faithful to the manga. The story begins in 1954 with a plane crash. All the passengers die. However one of them was heavily pregnant and she manages to live long enough to give birth, only for the child to prove to have a sleeping sickness. This child (Yumi) won't wake up.
Years pass. The baby grows into a girl, all without ever waking.
It's 1961. A small boy (Yuuichi) is hospitalised with asthma. He finds out about Yumi and decides that the way to wake her up is by analogy with Sleeping Beauty. He tells her he's a prince and kisses her. Well, he's seven. It's a nice try. Obviously it doesn't work, but Yuuichi isn't the kind to give up at the first hurdle and so he keeps sneaking back while no-one's looking to kiss this girl in her sleep. This is meant to be charming. Personally I found it the tiniest bit creepy, but that's just me getting the irrational heeby-jeebies and there's clearly not an ounce of harm in the lad. He means well.
This is where I should stop summarising the plot, I think, although to be honest it doesn't contain massive surprises. I've seen claims that Tezuka was inspired by Charly, the 1968 movie adaptation of Daniel Keyes's Flowers for Algernon. I can sort of see that, but it didn't feel like a rehash. The film's an odd little piece, at once formulaic and eccentric. It has absolutely nothing new to say about teenage romance, but its slightly hackneyed love story is being filtered through a unique premise. Risa Goto's Yumi is a mayfly. If you don't count the time she was asleep, her life began yesterday. By rights she should have the intellect of a new-born baby, although of course they cheat and give her "amazing learning abilities". (Speaking Japanese I could believe, since that's the kind of thing a sleeping mind might absorb subconsciously... but learning to read it? In a day? The girl's clearly psychic, although that's just my fan theory rather than something being stated in the film.)
Anyway, all this adds up to a fairly small-scale film that's sweet, a little sombre and sometimes funny. Nothing about Yumi's situation allows one to adhere to conventions, so Yuuichi will regularly find himself doing or saying things that made me laugh. In its gentle way, the film can be both scary and funny. Yumi doesn't have a clue, but the important thing is that both she and Yuuichi are wholehearted and sensible in how they approach their extraordinary situation. Neither would hurt a fly. I liked them.
As for the acting, Risa Goto is clearly crucial. I wouldn't call her brilliant or anything, but she's having to play a freak of a character in a situation that's way out of any acting comfort zones. She certainly can't just play herself. Especially given her youth, I thought she did admirably. She's got to be excited, giddy, childish and a hundred other things, with the emotion dial cranked up to eleven. A sub-par performance from her would have wrecked this film, but instead she anchors it. As for Hiroki Kohara as Yuuichi, he has a couple of early scenes in which he doesn't seem to be anywhere near the part's emotional requirements, but fortunately those turned out to be glitches and in the end I liked him. He captures the character's earnest purity, managing to be obsessive without becoming weird. According to imdb, this is his only screen role.
I haven't mentioned the director yet. It's Hideo Nakata, of Dark Water, Chaos
, L: Change the World
and the Ringu
movies. I thought he did a lovely job, actually. He puts the focus of the story where it belongs, i.e. on the actors, but at the same time he's also making the film look pretty with some excellent period recreations. It looked to me as if he's even using appropriate film stock. 1961 is particularly gorgeous to look at. Then there's the Karloff Frankenstein homage when Yumi eventually wakes up, with lightning at the window and Yuuchi fleeing in terror. All it needed was a voice-over saying "it's alive!"
Anyway, Nakata's the reason why this film's less obscure than you'd expect. It got included on the Tartan Asia Extreme DVD release of the Ring trilogy, so a lot of horror fans in the West unexpectedly found themselves buying and watching it.
This is a modest film, but a charming one. It's innocent. I cared about the characters, even if I was occasionally being made aware of the proximity of formula. There's some bad make-up at the end and Hiroki Kohara's visibly on a learning curve as an actor, but otherwise I think the film achieves what it set out to do. I appreciate the fact that it's apparently so faithful to the manga. The finale trails away a little instead of reaching a crescendo, but that's okay. I don't mind it. It's appropriate for what's neither a Disney happy ending nor a depressing tragic one. Overall, not bad at all.