Director: Takehiko Shinjo
Starring: Aoi Miyazaki, Hiroshi Tamaki, Meisa Kuroki, Munetaka Aoki, Keisuki Koide, Misa Uehara
Based on a novel by Takuji Ichikawa, Heavenly Forest was one of Japan’s most successful dramas in 2006. A few years old at the time of this review, I had heard quite a bit about the film and been suggested to view it by more than a few people who’s opinion I trust. The young love genre has been huge in Japan, in recent years, and it typically takes a lot for a film to stand out. So does this entry do just that? Or is it destined to be relegated to the forgotten ranks?
Heavenly Forest tells the story of the timid Makoto Segawa (Hiroshi Tamaki), an amateur photographer and his friendship with Shizuru Satonaka (Aoi Miyazawa) a classmate in college. Arriving in New York after hearing about an art exhibition by Shizuru, he reminisces on how he became friends with her and their first meeting on the first day of school. Forming a quick friendship, he finds he enjoys the times he spends with the quirky and unique girl and they spend much time in a forgotten forest near the school, where he teaches her his love for photography. Despite many not so subtle hints of her interest in him as a potential boyfriend, he sees her only as a very good friend. When he starts to make headway into a relationship with the beautiful Miyuki Toyama (Meisa Kuroki), Shizuru is at first put off, but comes to find she wants to like someone who Makoto likes and the three form a friendship. After a favor for Shizuru results in a kiss, he is dismayed to find that she has disappeared. After not having seen her in years, he comes to New York hoping see his good friend again.
Miyazawa and Tamaki really shine here, as both have many awkward and funny scenes, especially when onscreen together. There is an undeniable chemistry between the two and it really translates well to the screen. Miyazawa’s character being represented as the ‘ugly duckling’ of the film is a bit on the weak side though, as many can see she is actually quite pretty and just needs to take off her glasses to reveal it. It’s a cliché but one that does its job. There is a much better job with depiction to her attire; she looks really odd and dorky, but endearing as well. Tamaki plays his conflicted character well; though there are a few times you want to hit him over the head for being so blind. This reaction, I suppose, is a real sign of my investment with the characters and their story. Meisa Kuroki is stunning, as usual, in the film; and while her character has less to do than the leads, she definitely makes an impression. Likable and appealing, it is easy to see why she could be an obstacle to the main couple in the film.
The film is shot very well, with interesting and more dynamic shots sprinkled throughout the film when the scene calls for it. Of particular note are the scenes in the ‘heavenly forest’; they are beautiful and almost fairy tale like in their depiction. The almost magical look of the forest had me interested in going out myself to experience some nature. The music is good, upbeat tones used earlier to complement the funnier first half and appropriately dramatic cues for the meatier second half. Otsuka Ai also provides the film’s theme song, a smash hit when it was released.
Benefiting from a strong young cast, Heavenly Forest is funny, warm, and sentimental. Well acted and well paced, it definitely is one of the better dramas to come out of Japan in recent years. Though the ending is a bit predictable, especially to those who are familiar with this genre, you should find yourself engaged and drawn to the especially small touches which reveal each of the character’s personas. A good and solid film, I’d say check it out if you have the opportunity.
You may enjoy the film if you enjoyed: Virgin Snow, Taiyo no Uta, or Honey and Clover