Closed Note

Bottom Line: This piece of Japanese candy floss will only melt in the mouth of the mushiest romantic.

Pusan International Film Festival

"Closed Note" (Kurosudo Nooto), as its title suggests, is a closed world where ugly reality is locked out, offering gift-wrapped romance made for escapists. Director Isao Yukisada pulls the done-to-death trick of the old diary connecting one person to another living in a different time and world.

The film opened in third place at the Japanese boxoffice Sept. 29, partially stimulated by controversy about lead actress Erika Sawajiri's "attitude problem." Yukisada's unabashedly commercial romances "Crying Out Love From the Center of the World" and "Spring Snow" replicated their domestic success in Asia, but the new film is slack on originality and chemistry, so it probably won't perform a hat trick in the overseas market.

Kae (Erika Sawajiri), a college student training to be a school teacher, discovers a notebook tucked away in her newly rented apartment. It is the handwritten diary of former tenant, Ibuki Mano (Yuko Takeuchi), a elementary school teacher. She starts to follow Ibuki's floridly written entries like a Harlequin addict. Ibuki who has more patience for her nauseatingly cherubic pupils than Mother Teresa for the sick, becomes the diffident Kae's role model. As Kae serializes Ibuki's love life in her mind, she casts her TV idol in the role of Ibuki's boyfriend Takashi.

When not strumming her mandolin like a Vermeer portrait, Kae works part-time in a shop specializing in rare fountain pens. And who could have walked in but the most classically chiseled face in Japanese cinema -- Yusuke Iseya ("Sukiyaki Western Django," "Memories of Matsuko") playing a man named Ryu Ishitobi. He is looking for the right pen for his exhibition though it's not ink but corny dialogue that flows.

It turns out that Ryu has been loitering in Kae's neighborhood, and she is driven to distraction by expectations of a full-blown romance with his mildly suggestive overtures. Kae eventually summons the courage to confess her love to Ryu, but overhears a crushing truth. This is supposed to be a big revelation, though there'll be few gasps of surprise in the cinema. Hearts are broken and healed, tears are shed, but there follows a resolution that helps wash down the emotional heartburn from too much syrupy sweetness and melodrama.

With many outdoor locations set in or around Kyoto, every encounter between the main protagonists are framed by a lush backdrop, sprinkled with conventional visual tropes like rain falling at a sad moment, or a close-up of blue andrangeas under the window sill to suggest a romantic interlude. The problem is that every character is too damn nice -- to look at and to each other -- so every scene feels cosmetic and lacks enough contrast and tension to justify the running length. Love scenes are scrubbed clean of sexual passion, leaving only a bland chasteness.

"Closed Note" still makes a good date movie, if only to let the female audience swoon over Yusuke Iseya, whose flowing mane and real illustrations (he was an art college graduate) make him look the part. Guys get to drool over Japan's two loveliest actresses for the price of one ticket.

Toho Company Ltd./Hakuhodo DY Media Partners Inc./SDP Inc./Sony Music Entertainment (Japan) Inc./Kadokawa Shoten Publishing Co. Ltd.
Director-screenwriter: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriters: Tomoko Yoshida, Chihiro Ito
Based on the novel by: Shusuke Shizukui
Producers: Kei Haruna, Morio Amagi, Akihiro Yamauchi, Hasashi Usui
Executive producer: Minami Ichikawa
Director of photography: Koichi Nakayama
Production designer: Yuji Tsuzuki
Music: Meina Co
Costume designer: Sachiko Ito
Editor: Tsuyoshi Imai
Kae Horii: Erika Sawajiri
Ryu Ishitobi: Yusuke Iseya
Ibuki Mano: Yuko Takeuchi

Running time -- 138 minutes
No MPAA rating