Eizo Sugawa's "River of Fireflies" (at the Little Tokyo Cinema 1) is a tender, contemplative coming-of-age drama that offers a refreshing contrast to the usual Hollywood teen pictures. Puberty in most American movies means a near-total preoccupation with sex and puppy love whereas in this warm, intimate and leisurely Japanese picture it also means an awakening to the world in which you live in all its contradictions as well as its joys.
To its credit, "River of Fireflies" is candid (and gentle) about the onset of sexual drives, and its 14-year-old hero Tatsuo (Takayuki Sakazume) does experience the anguish of a first crush on the lovely Eiko (Tamae Sawada). However, in Sugawa and Kyohei Nakaoka's adaptation of what one suspects is an autobiographical novel by Teru Miyamoto, these entirely natural developments take place in the context of everything else that's going on around Tatsuo. In short, "River of Fireflies" possesses a welcome sense of perspective.
What Tatsuo learns is the full measure of the love of his feckless father (Rentaro Mikuni), of how death can be as unexpected as it is expected and of the way in which people can surprise us with gestures symbolic, concrete and crucial. In "River of Fireflies" Tatsuo comes to understand that while life is transitory, nature is cyclical and therefore sustaining. Tatsuo's discoveries take place in 1962 in a small city in Northern Japan in the course of a bitterly cold and snowy winter that gradually gives way to a radiant spring. As photographed by Masahisa Himeda, "River of Fireflies" is a most beautiful film.
Like Burt Lancaster or Spain's Francisco Rabal, Rentaro Mikuni is a veteran actor for whom the fading of movie-idol handsomeness has brought the freedom of a far greater range of roles. Mikuni is marvelous as an earthy, life-loving, elegant man who was already 52 when his only son was born. He has suffered the loss of his position as the richest merchant in the region and is now confronted with failing health. Mikuni's portrayal is marked with passion and gallantry. Sakazume is remarkable in his ability to express all that young Tatsuo experiences. Yukiyo Toake and Tomoko Sawada are equally splendid as Mikuni's wives. Those stalwart elderly actors Taiji Tonoyama (as an avuncular cabinetmaker) and Hidoji Otaki (as Mikuni's patrician friend of his youth) are both on hand.
It is Tonoyama who has promised to take Tatsuo and Eiko to the mountains to see the shimmering river of fireflies that gives the film its title. According to legend, a couple who views the swarm together will eventually marry, but in "River of Fireflies" (Times-rated Mature) it becomes a symbol of life's constant renewal.
Opening in the Little Tokyo Cinema 2 is a rerun of "Island of Hell," one of Kon Ichikawa's stylish detective movies, and "Trapped in Love."
'RIVER OF FIREFLIES' ('HOTARUGAWA')
A Shochiku release of a Kinema Tokyo & Nichiei Co. co-production. Executive producers Matsuo Takahashi, Hiroaki Kato. Producer Kiyoshi Fujimoto. Planned by Takahashi & Seiya Araki. Director Eizo Sugawa. Screenplay Kyohei Nakaoka & Sugawa; from a novel by Teru Miyamoto. Camera Masahisa Himeda. Music Masatsugu Shinozaki. Art director Iwao Akune. With Takayuki Sakazume, Rentaro Mikuni, Yukiyo Toake, Tamae Sawada, Tomoko Naraoka, Taiji Tonoyama, Hidoji Otaki. In Japanese, with English subtitles.
Running time: 1 hour, 54 minutes.