Crying Out Love in the Center of the World (2004)
Nicholas Driscoll
March 28, 2007
Note: review may contain spoilers

The weepy romance film in which the sweet, semi-innocent woman/girl dies at the end seems to be a specialty of Japan. I have seen it frequently enough that I have started to expect it whenever I see a Japanese romance movie. Apparently the Japanese really love tear-jerking, tragic love. Once, when I pointed out the surprising prevalence of this kind of Japanese film to one of my female Japanese friends, she agreed. In fact, she named another such Japanese film as her favorite. When I asked her what her favorite American movies are, the first one she listed was A Walk to Remember!

Perhaps at the forefront of the Japanese tearjerkers is 2004's Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World. Based on the Kyouichi Katayama novel of the same name (although the book was also released in America in English as the oddly-titled Socrates in Love), which currently holds the record as the best-selling novel ever in Japan, the film likewise was a big smash. In addition to all of this, it also has perhaps the cheesiest title for a romance movie I have ever seen. The movie, however, miraculously avoids the cheese (and the cheesecake) and delivers a well-rounded arrow aimed straight for the sentimental cinema-lover's heart strings.

Sakutaro (Takao Osawa), known as Saku to all his friends, is a man who can't escape his past. Although engaged to be married to the beautiful, slightly handicapped Ritsuko (Kou Shibasaki, who can also be seen in Toho's One Missed Call from 2003), his heart is trapped in yesteryear, all wrapped up in his first love—spunkyAki Hirose (Masami Nagasawa, perhaps best known in America as one of the twin fairies in 2003's Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S. and 2004's Godzilla: Final Wars). Unfortunately, Aki died just as their love was blossoming.When Ritsuko discovers a cassette tape with Aki's voice on it stashed in her old clothes, she disappears. Saku, in searching for her, finds himself reliving his days with Aki in extended flashback to 1986, with Mirai Moriyama playing his high school self. Thus old love is revisited, old sore reopened, and Ritsuko's connection to Aki rediscovered as the pains of the past demand resolution.

The story is well-done, with plenty of character-drawing scenes and what seems a mostly emotionally honest script. The emotions seem largely genuine and not forced or unnatural, although as another reviewer noted, the last twenty minutes or so devolve into mawkish melodrama. In fact, the last few scenes of the film seem to just drag on and on. I understand how they are necessary to the plot, but I felt that we had already passed the climax and the denouement overstayed its welcome without actually tying up the loose ends. I never quite felt that Saku and Ritsuko's relationship is resolved. Ritsuko's character is just cut short and unexplored, which is a shame. A big question mark hovers over her and Saku's relationship in the end and left me feeling unsatisfied.

Directed by Isao Yukisada, who also made the delightful slice-of-life comedy Kyo no Dekigoto, Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is told carefully and slowly, with well-framed shots lingering on the sweetness of the leads' affection for each other. Some of the shots, like one wherein Saku and Aki are framed in the fire of a sunset bursting through the windows of an abandoned building, are quite beautiful, and are a testament to Yukisada's, and his cinematographer's, skills.

The main characters are at the center of this film, and thankfully they are treated with care. Yes, there is a lot of crying involved, especially for Saku, but Osawa and Moriyama are both up to the task. Indeed, they are well-cast as the somewhat awkward, emotionally charged Saku. Osawa has pronounced bags under his eyes and really looks like he was crying for the last twenty years. Moriyama plays out the stages of Saku's growing affection for Aki pretty well, from his initial attraction-hiding hostility to his pinched, crushing sorrow as Aki starts to slip away from him. Nagasawa also proves to have acting chops beyond simple fairy portrayal. When Aki is sick, Nagasawa really seems sick. Nagasawa must be a killer flirt in real life, too, for she pulls off the teasing affection well here. The character of Aki is, initially, hopelessly clichéd—she is the romantic interest of a bazillion anime stories. That is, she is highly intelligent, good at sports, and very popular—and she is the one to initiate. In a lot of Japanese romances, it is the woman who is the romantic aggressor, and that trend continues here. It isn't until we get closer to Aki and discover her introspective, vulnerable side that the clichéd character gains flesh. It's also worth mentioning that, for once, the romantic lead doesn't look like she's suffering from anorexia, which is a relief; although she is thin, she isn't painfully so and even appears to retain some baby fat in her cheeks. I enjoyed Nagasawa's performance except for a hiccup or two, and she has enjoyed a flourishing acting career ever since.

While the story is well told, some elements of the message it holds are a little dodgy. It seems to triumph unhealthy faithfulness to the dead as a romantic ideal. Remembering first love to the point of consuming obsession is presented as something of a point of honor, to the degree that even robbing a grave for the ashes and bones of a loved one unbeknownst to the family is condoned, even approved. It is a bit disturbing and easily swallows the little suggestions that characters just get on with their lives. On the other hand, though, really, the love in romance movies is rarely ever particularly healthy in my opinion.

The music is mostly piano and strings, but sometimes wind instruments also come in to highlight a happy-go-lucky day at the beach or a lugubrious moment at the hospital. The music usually works to highlight the action and only once comes on too strong, feeling manipulative during the action at the airport. An old Japanese pop song also plays over a montage of Aki and Saku's precious moments together and sets the time period well.

Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World is outside my usual movie watching diet and I feel a little unequal to the task of reviewing it. Indeed, the first time I watched it, I decided it was too depressing and stopped before reaching the halfway point. Nevertheless, this is some quality human-drama with very likable characters. I take umbrage with the ending and how the character of Ritsuko is handled as well as some of the philosophical leanings of the film. However, I can still recommend it if you're in the mood for a good cry, in the center of the world or elsewhere.