Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World

Reviewed by: Gunner

June 27, 2005

Rating: four-point-five

Sakutaro Matsumoto: Takao Osawa
Young Sakutaro Matsumoto: Mirai Moriyama
Aki Hirose: Masami Nagasawa
Ritsuko Fujimura: Kou Shibasaki

Review (Contains spoilers!)
There is a fine line between a masterfully-crafted melodrama and one that goes overboard and for me, Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World certainly belongs to the former category. Like the 1995 Japanese classic Love Letter and South Korea’s 2001 production Failan, Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World falls under what I would term the ‘subtle melodrama’. This sub-genre of melodrama does not have any epic setting nor does it aspire to tell any grand moral story. Death and tragedy are certainly part and parcel of this genre, but in some melodramas, it can be introduced pretty abruptly, artificially, and even unnecessarily. Death and tragedy should always be used to enhance the melodrama, not be the melodrama and this is what Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World achieves successfully. Based on the best-selling novel by Kyoichi Katayama which also spawned a drama series, Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World is a movie that combines all the elements of a good melodrama.

The story begins on a poignantly stormy morning. There is a typhoon, classified as ‘Typhoon #29’, rampaging around the region. Sakutaro Matsumoto, a part-time office worker, wakes up in his office’s sofa to what is seemingly another normal day, except that it is the beginning of a series of events that will change his life forever. Back home, his fiancée, the beautiful Ritsuko Fujimura who walks with a limp, is packing up her belongings in anticipation of the coming typhoon and discovers an old pink sweater which she used to wear as a kid. While trying it on, she finds a cassette tape in the pocket and goes out to purchase a walkman to hear its contents. What she hears moves her to tears and prompts her to leave; only leaving a note to her fiancé that says, ‘I’m going away for awhile. Don’t worry’. By chance, Sakutaro sees his fiancée limping around in the background of a live report on the typhoon being shown on the evening news and immediately sets out the find her, the place incidentally being his old hometown.

Here is where the story really begins as we are transported back to 1986 where we see a young Sakutaro running down the street of his hometown. He arrives late at the funeral of his principal and is just in time to see his classmate, the popular and beautiful Aki Hirose, start to recite the eulogy. He is immediately impressed by how maturely she carries herself, maintaining her poise during the funeral rather than shedding tears uncontrollably like most of the other girls are doing. Halfway during the recitation, it starts to rain heavily and this rain persists even as the coffin is being carried out for cremation. Looking on from just outside the main entrance, Sakutaro notices his relative, the old photographer Uncle Shige, looking on from the distance.

Unbeknownst to Sakutaro, Aki actually has a crush on him and events unfold which sees a relationship blooming between Aki and Sakutaro. As it turns out, the pair learns that Uncle Shige and their late principal were actually lovers, but due to the onset of the Second World War, were unable to get married. After the war, Uncle Shige had lost everything and worked hard to save up for his marriage, but by the time he had done so, his lover had been arranged to marry someone else. However, his love for her had never wavered over the years and he promises to tell Aki and Sakutaro the entire story only if they steal a piece of her bone for him. This they do and during the course of the task Aki poignantly asks, ‘When you die, does love die too?’ The scene is fast-forwarded to the present day when we see the older Sakutaro visiting Aki’s grave which is incidentally in the same cemetery as their principal and immediately we are reminded of the inescapable tragedy that is about to follow. Memories begin to stir in Sakutaro’s mind and he rushes to his old home in his hometown to find a metal container containing a number of old cassette tapes like the one his fiancée found in her sweater pocket.

While listening to each and every one of those tapes, he begins to relive various events of his past. One of which is when he wins a friendly competition he has with Aki to get their cassette recording played live on a night-time radio show, winning a Sony cassette walkman in the process. However, his recording details a fictitious story where he says his classmate Aki has been diagnosed with leukaemia and was unable to appear to play the role of Juliet in their school’s Romeo and Juliet play. This upsets Aki and she avoids Sakutaro for a few days, finally using a cassette to tell him why she is so upset. This kicks off a series of cassette exchanges between the two where they begin to share more about each other and where Sakutaro gets Aki to officially become his girlfriend. These eventually become the tapes that the older Sakutaro is again listening to.

Another incident is where Sakutaro and Aki travel to Yume Island to spend their summer holidays. They stay overnight at an old abandoned hotel where they find a spoilt camera that still has film in it. The next morning when they are about to go back, Aki collapses with blood bleeding from her nose and Sakutaro later learns that Aki is suffering from leukaemia. He is guilt-ridden; believing that his earlier lie has somehow cursed Aki. Aki however puts on a brave front, recording in a cassette tape the instructions for a treasure hunt that the older Sakutaro relives while walking through his now abandoned school. Here we see Ritsuko about to put a cassette in one of the shoe cabinets in the gymnasium when she sees Sakutaro walking by while on his treasure hunt. She secretly follows him and eventually sees him come to a stop in front of the grand piano in the main hall. Here Sakutaro imagines Aki playing the piano for him like she did all those years back and finally he loses control and starts to weep uncontrollably. Ritsuko just quietly walks away.

The film from the old camera is developed and in it is a photo of Uluru, or Ayer's Rock, in Australia. Aki immediately falls in love with the photo, connecting somehow with the immense sacredness of the place to which the local Aborigines believe to be the centre of the world and from which all things came into being. She yearns to visit it, something that Sakutaro promises to help her eventually fulfil. Meanwhile, Aki and Sakutaro continue to communicate via the help of young girl who visits her mother in the same hospital that Aki is in. She develops a close friendship with Aki and helps her deliver her cassettes to Sakutaro and vice versa. One day, Sakutaro brings Aki to take a photo at Uncle Shige’s place so that she can make a passport. After doing so, Aki asks Uncle Shige to take a wedding photo of her and Sakutaro so that that the memory will last forever and he obliges. Soon after, Sakutaro purchases tickets to go to Australia and brings Aki to the airport. However, the flight is cancelled at the last moment due incidentally to a typhoon and Aki collapses at the airport. She is rushed back to the hospital and days later as she lays dying on her death-bed, she makes one final cassette recording to Sakutaro. She asks the little girl to pass it to Sakutaro and in one final moment while all threads in the story are drawn together and time seems to come to a standstill, the young girl is knocked down by a car while crossing the road. The girl is none other than Ritsuko and this is why she now walks with a limp. Fate has somehow brought her and Sakutaro together and entwined the paths of all three persons. Taking the advice of Uncle Shige who says that all that is left for those left behind in this world is to tie up loose ends, the older Sakutaro rushes to the airport to find Ritsuko and they reunite. Later, they go to visit Uluru together where while scattering Aki’s ashes to the wind, Sakutaro is finally able to exorcise the demons of his past.

Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World is basically a simple love story that aims to explore the meaning of love. Is love eternal? Does it end the moment someone dies? It is also a story about resolution and finding peace with oneself. In this fast-moving world where death and violence are parts of everyday life, these themes perhaps take on even more weight and purpose. It leads us to question what we really live for and what drives us in life. Uncle Shige chases a love that he can never experience throughout his entire lifetime while Sakutaro has subconsciously been burdened over the years by the events leading to the death of his first love. The important message though is in the end life goes on. As Uncle Shige says during the movie, many people would like to think that there is a heaven after we die, a place where we can one day be reunited with those we love. However, the only real task for those who are left behind is really just to tie up loose ends and to bravely cope with whatever comes each following day, taking the good points that come with the bad. All things must come to an end eventually, but the memories that come with them are things that we will carry with us throughout our entire life’s journey. The memories of our youth in particular are extremely valuable because our minds are the most innocent at this stage of our lives and still unsullied by the trappings of adult life. It is during that period that we tend to formulate the grand aspirations and ideals that we hope to achieve one day. As we grow older though, we get increasingly weary under the pressures of the world and many of these aspirations and ideals fall by the wayside. The challenge therefore is to retain some of that innocence even as we grow older and use it to fuel our sense of purpose. That is the beauty and tragedy of our mortal lives, and it is that while loss is something we should come to expect, yet it also helps us to appreciate each and every moment more and our lives burn all the brighter because of it.

It really is not a surprise that Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World was a box-office hit in Japan in 2004. The story and concepts are simple enough, but yet also sufficiently realistic and relevant to us the audience. The plot is well-paced and scenes filmed beautifully. The two young actors who play the young Sakutaro and Aki are expected to carry the entire show and they do it surprisingly well. Masami Nagasawa as Aki puts in an exceptional performance. She manages to convey the youth and innocence that is expected of her character and yet also the conflicting emotions that come with her impending doom. Perhaps this is what makes the entire tragedy so tragic, since this is a bright and promising life cut short in its prime, a perfect heart-warming relationship cruelly torn apart by fate. There are plenty of carefully inserted plot-devices through the film, from the references to the tragic story of Romeo and Juliet to the taking of Aki’s and Sakutaro’s wedding photo. Indeed, there is a haunting feel towards the entire film as we hear Aki’s voice speaking through her many recorded tapes despite knowing early on her eventual fate. I always like a story where all the sub-plots make sense and eventually tie in to the main plot and Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World is that type of story. It is also one of those films that will continue to keep you thinking long after it is over and therefore for those who enjoy a good love story or melodrama, Crying Out Love, In the Centre of the World is a gem and definitely should not be missed out on.

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