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Sugar and Spice ~ Fumi Zekka
     

Left: Erika Sawajiri and Yuya Yagira get comfortable.
Right: Mari Natsuki (far right) lights up while Yagira and Sawajiri (left) wonder what Wilson Chen (center) is thinking.
Year: 2006
Director: Isamu Nakae  
Writer: Fumie Mizubashi  
  Cast:

Yuya Yagira, Erika Sawajiri, Mari Natsuki, Wilson Chen, Yo Oizumi, Hajime Anzai, Yu Aoi, Gaku Hamada, Toshiyuki Itakura, Mayuko Iwasa, Akio Kaneda, Ryo Kimura, Ken Mitsuishi, Kaoru Okunuki, Saeko, Jiro Sato, Sousuke Takaoka

  The Skinny: The visuals are appealing and the stars are pretty, but Sugar and Spice is ultimately a hollow, bittersweet romance that's more bitter than sweet. Yuya Yagira: do some comedies already.
Review
by
Kevin Ma:

     Young actor Yuya Yagira started higher than any young actor could: his first performance in Hirokazu Kore-eda's Nobody Knows at 14 years-old earned him the Best Actor award at the Cannes Film Festival. For his third film Sugar and Spice ~ Fumi Zekka, he finally gets to play not only a less tragic character, but also his first romantic lead. Purely a teen romance, Sugar and Spice is based on the 2005 award-winning novel that was praised for its portrayal of a coming-of-age romance. And yet, the romance turns out to be the only alienating aspect of the film.
     Yuya plays Shiro, a fresh high school graduate who, along with his two best friends, is at a crossroads in life. One is going to a prestigious university far away, and the other plans to move in with his girlfriend and work his way through college. Seeing no point in college, Shiro defies his parents and decides to work at the most American-looking gas station in Japan with the support of his America-worshipping grandmother (Mari Natsuki), who runs a bar near the American army base. One day the gas station hires Noriko (Japan's "it" girl of the moment, Erika Sawajiri), whom Shiro once saw on the street slapping her boyfriend. Not very experienced in love, Shiro initially acts awkward around Noriko, but it turns out that she kind of likes him too. Eventually, they become a happy young couple who sing along to Oasis songs in montages and, like all first-time lovers, Shiro devotes himself entirely to the relationship. But just as things are getting better, the past threatens to put their relationship in jeopardy.
     The second part of the Japanese title for Sugar and Spice is "Fumi Zekka," which is a slogan printed on the box of a very famous candy that appears in the film. Meaning "sublime or exceptional flavor," the title already states its conflicting attitude about romance. Romance is indeed flavorful while it lasts, but Sugar and Spice really doesn't put much of its effort into building the romance itself. Director Isamu Nakae, who last directed the pretty-but-empty Calmi Cuori Appassionati, thankfully drops most of his feature debut's artistic pretentiousness for Sugar and Spice, but what he does keep is its visual hollowness. From its art direction to its cinematography, Sugar and Spice is more beautifully crafted than a teen romance probably should be. However, the script by Fumie Mizubashi (who also wrote Calmi Cuori Appassionati) plays up the emotions without rightfully earning them. Mizubashi spends plenty of time building Shiro's character, but doesn't spend nearly enough time setting up Noriko and the romance itself. In turn, the audience cares about the romance only because they like Shiro, but the film unfairly vilifies Noriko. In fact, no one really knows what Noriko sees in Shiro - she confesses that she likes him after they've barely gotten to know one another. Fortunately, the romance doesn't feel like much of a stretch because Shiro is such a likable character.
     Of course, Shiro is also likeable because he's played by Yuya Yagira. Playing someone two years older than he really is (and at that age, it actually makes a difference), Yagira carefully blends maturity and boyish charm as Shiro. While Shiro is initially written as an introvert surrounded by eccentric characters like his grandmother and his best friend, the script eventually allows Shiro to grow into his own character rather than remaining the straight man in the midst of the eccentricities around him. No longer having to play a tragic character like the one in Nobody Knows, it's refreshing to see Yagira actually performing comedic moments. Erika Sawajiri looks pretty in her role as the object of Yagira's affections, but the lack of a solid backstory means that Sawajiri doesn't really get a chance to stretch for her role. Thanks to her looks, Noriko is instantly likable, but as mentioned before, the lack of characterization for Noriko also means that her character is hard to identify with, regardless of how accomplished Sawajiri may be as an actress. Despite possessing only one well developed protagonist, Sugar and Spice features surprisingly strong supporting characters. Veteran actress Mari Natsuki captures the eccentric grandmother character without going over-the-top and steals every scene she's in. Even Taiwanese actor Wilson Chen impresses, sporting surprisingly strong Japanese skills during his key moment in his role as Natsuki's young foreign lover. However, like Sawajiri, he isn't given much to do and is ultimately wasted.
     Running just over two hours, Sugar and Spice is surprisingly involving. Nakae opts for a film that favors exposition and character study over story, which could've made the two hours a pretty-looking bore. Thankfully, the characters and the romance remain engaging, making Sugar and Spice an appealing film with photogenic stars, but a story that's hard to relate to. Furthermore, the filmmakers shift things in another direction during the third act, reminding us that Sugar and Spice is really a coming-of-age story. It ends on an upbeat note, but the ending nevertheless left me a little bummed out. Perhaps that is the lesson of Sugar and Spice, that young adult life can be as sweet as dating Erika Sawajiri, but it can also be bitter as well. Perhaps Yuya Yagira hasn't really lightened up after all. (Kevin Ma 2007)

Availability: DVD (Japan)
Region 2 NTSC
Fuji Television
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Japanese Language Track
Dolby Digital 2.0
Removable English subtitles
Commentary, featurettes, trailers.
 

   
 
 
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