Some films know to impress with just their simplicity. They don't need a complex storyline, personality-changing dramatic events or elaborate soul-searching analogies to get their message across. Kitagawa's Halfway is no doubt one of those films. Shelve all your expectations of anything big, tragic or epic and let yourself be swept away by the beauty of the smaller, seemingly insignificant things in life. Halfway won't disappoint you.
First love in highschool must be one of the most popular topics in (light-hearted) Japanese dramas (think Ishikawa's Su-ki-da). Even though the Japanese school system is often considered as one of the toughest and competitive in the world, films like Halfway always end up highlighting the finer periods of Japanese school life. Love confessions and people just chilling on fields of grass near some idyllic rivers, and of course plenty of blue skies with puffy clouds. It's all in here.
Not all that surprising if you know the script was co-written by Shunji Iwai. The final result is less dreamy than Iwai's own films, Kitagawa made her film a bit more down to earth, but his influence on the script is still clearly visible. The setup is pretty simple: Shu and Hiro are two young kids experiencing first love (the fluffy and completely innocent kind mind). The most thrilling act of love is holding each other's hands, the rest of it mostly involves hanging out out in real life or on the phone.
The main dramatic thread lies with Shu moving away to enter a Tokyo-based college. Hiro fears this will be the end of their relationship and blames him for starting something with her when he knew about this even before they got involved. Through the course of the film they try to figure things out, though rest assured that it never amounts to anything more than simple arguments and minor bursts of uncertainty that come and go as quickly as they are introduced.
Kitagawa reinforces the cliché that female directors usually deliver less stylized films. The camera work in Halfway feels pretty free and liberated, which translates nicely to the film's characters. It's not as if no attention was paid to the film's looks though, Kitagawa chose some fitting and charming locations and includes a few well-timed moments where she plays with natural light. Personally I prefer hyper-stylized films, but it's difficult to argue that Kitagawa's style works in favor of the lighthearted drama.
As for the soundtrack, I don't really know what to think. While watching Halfway I was 100% sure Joe Hisaishi was responsible for the music. The score resembles Hisaishi's best work for Kitano's films (Kikujiro, Dolls) to the point where the music in Halfway almost sounds like a remake of Hisaishi's finest moments. This would still be somewhat acceptable if Hisaishi was actually responsible for the score, but apparently the music was handled by Takeshi Kobayashi (a Shunji Iwai regular). So while the music in Halfway is quite wonderful indeed, the aftertaste is just a little sour considering the lack of a unique sound.
The acting is solid and natural. Even though both Kii Kitano and Masaki Okada look like typical Japanese pop idols this film is definitely not just an ordinary promotion vehicle for upcoming pop stars. Secondary roles are also handled with the proper respect, only Hiroki Narimiya is an obvious miscast. He looks a little too young to play a teacher and he has a hard time removing that plastered, fake look from his face. I wasn't a big fan of him to begin with, but he looks quite out of place here.
Halfway is a template film for fans of the Japanese light-hearted high-school romances. Everything in this film feels natural, convincing and realistic. The result is a film that lacks epic drama and big emotions, but draws its strength from small scenes of joy, disappointment and happiness. If you think that watching two people wasting their time by the river in idle conversation is boring, this is definitely not going to be your kind of film.
Naysayers may also criticize the film for its flimsy moral and obvious life lessons, but the way Kitagawa handles the subject is anything but cheap. While it is true that the film holds very few shocking and/or deep revelations about relationships and life, Halfway is more about the reliving the experience than it is about walking away a little wiser. For people who have cut the ties with school life a long time ago, Halfway forms the perfect melancholy trip to a life that was much simpler (even though it didn't seem that way at that time).
In the end Halfway is a film primarily made for existing fans of the genre. It's a very good, solid entry in the genre but does little to cross any existing boundaries. It's a nice 90 minutes away from life's everyday troubles and it does a great job putting you at ease, as long as you can appreciate the small, delicate nature of the couple's blossoming relationship. I do still wonder about that soundtrack though, it can't be that I'm the only one that noticed the similarities between this and Hisaishi's work. Still, better to have a great Hisaishi rip-off than a bland and generic soundtrack.