“Darling wa Gaikokujin – My Darling is a Foreigner” / 2010. Japan / Ue Kazuaki / 100 Minutes / Drama
Weak English skills don’t hinder aspiring comic book writer Saori from dating her love interest Tony, a language nerd from the United States. They move into a house at the sea (which appears to be suspiciously spacious for a yenless young couple) to slowly overcome differences in culture and language. Shadows appear on their sunny romance when her father opposes the idea of a foreign son-in-law. To gain his respect Saori plunges herself into a 24/7 working mode, ignoring Tony’s desperate invitations for a cup of milk tea. Just at the time her comics start selling her father’s health breaks down along with the relationship with Tony. The father passes away and Tony leaves Japan to give themselves a break. Saori recollects herself. The inevitable happy end draws near as she jumps onto the next airplane to reunite with Tony in New York.
Not being much of a romantic guy myself, it is no surprise that love comedies belong to the genres that I avoid more or less consciously, along with splatter films and sport dramas (though those are much worse). The ones I have watched in the past were usually at movie evenings with my church friends – most of them girls.
So, the reason I went to the theater to watch DARLING WA GAIKOKUJIN lies not only in its intercultural theme but because I am in one of the scenes! Yeah, right at the beginning! My second cousin who worked on this movie as a production assistant invited me over to Tôkyô last summer, to serve as an extra. There I’m standing in celluloid as a foreign party guest. Shooting was fun, because I could spend the day with about thirty extras from different countries in a luxury mansion. It provided me with an interesting chance of talking with Tôkyô foreigners, some of them students, some of them entrepreneurs, soldiers or models.
Just like seemingly most Japanese movies nowadays DARLING is based on a comic book series of the same title, and those are based on the real-life experiences of manga-writer Oguri Saori and her husband Tony László. Yes, on the remote island country that Japan thinks itself to be, the mystery of international marriages still provides matter for bestselling literature. The comic books present us humorous yet clever essays about cross-cultural discoveries, all in Oguri’s unique style. Despite the not-so-subtle title “My Darling is a Foreigner” Oguri makes it clear that Western men are neither necessarily romantic princes nor dangerous erotomaniacs, and by keeping her focus put on simple everyday life issues that basically all couples have to deal with (doing the laundry, cooking curry or different sleep-wake rhythms) the ordinary, human side of Tony and everyone else shines through. One could even speculate that she would have made a manga regardless of her partner’s nationality anyway, as she has a heart-warming sense for characters.
It was only a matter of time somebody would pick her books to be made into a lighthearted love comedy, or as we say rabukome.
Well, judging from the form conventions of rabukome, DARLING WA GAIKOKUJIN doesn’t stand out much from the piles of similar Japanese works. Inoue Mao (23) plays Saori and a young Hugh Jackman Tôkyô-based (?) American performer Jonathan Sherr (35) is given chance to enact Tony. It’s the first movie for director Ue Kazuaki (55) who has been doing commercials for most of the time.
What makes this movie a little bit different from the other romance stories is of course the cross-cultural subject. Considering the broad complex of issues related to foreigners in Japan (of which “white” Westerners like Tony still belong to the luckier ones) DARLING succeeds fairly well in keeping the balance between political correctness and caricaturization, but falters upon the deficiencies of its own genre. On the one hand the movie addresses the typical behavior of Japanese and foreigners rather well, depicting a diverse society while exposing prejudices on both sides. (It is always nice to see female Japanese in executive positions such as the editor of Saori’s publisher, or non-white people being allowed to do normal stuff in Japanese movies.)
On the other hand DARLING’s very genre demands its protagonists to be remodelled into woodcut-like stereotypes again – ouch! Saori’s idealized family seems to be copied and pasted right from a tv commercial. The biggest victim of the softened script is the character of Tony himself. It is the big irony of DARLING WA GAIKOKUJIN that the angel-like Tony comes across as the very cliché that many Japanese women weary of their chauvinist or ‘herbivore‘ countrymen are dreaming of. The shallow acting skills of Inoue and Sherr don’t help either, but create that cheezy atmosphere most movies cobbled together from cute but inept pop idols suffer from these days. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with easy-to-digest entertainment. How much depth can you expect from a film that sees Saori running down the street to an ultra-embarassing Japanese rap song? If people get the plain message from her mom (“Don’t blame it on nationality, people are just different”) there’s not much to complain about the substance.
One problem I see might stem from the different natures of the original work and the dramatization in film. The comics had funny personal essays, giving Tony even a direct voice with some special “Tony talks to himself” pages, while the movie tries to knit those random topics into a standard rabukome-narrative. The main focus lies on Saori. In the first few minutes the movie experiments with cute animations and staged street interviews of international couples (not unlike the surveys presented in the books), but soon gives in into predictable genre-conventions. The storyline finally culminates in awkward moments of the couple reuniting right in front of a wedding ceremony and Saori being proposed fairytale-style by Tony. It is also doubtful that real life events already manifactured into manga form work out well when retranslated into movie scenes. And as it is often the case, interesting episodes described in the original work are replaced by weaker plotpoints. The actual Tony László, we learn from the comic, got to know Saori’s mother by bumping into her on the street while he was riding a monocycle! An episode like that begs for a film adaption, but the scriptwriter dropped it in favor of a standard meet-the-parents scene.
Still, DARLING got its qualities. It’s beautifully photographed, it’s friendly and it has a number of powerful moments of calm. There were many shots loaded with emotion but executed with skillfull discretion: The first came in a montage of Tony and Saori’s happy love life at the beginning: As the two come close, we only see their shadows on a wall. Then follows a bed scene, but all we see is a close-up shot of their entwined hands on the bed. In any Western movie this would have been the time to show naked celebrities. The allusion is much more poetic. Later we are shown the sad moment when Tony says goodbye, to leave for his flight without Saori. She doesn’t look at him but silently lets two tears drop onto the paper of her working desk while we hear the sound of Tony leaving the house. For moments like those I don’t regret watching DARLING WA GAIKOKUJIN – and of course for my small cameo. I recommend reading the comic books nonetheless.
The official website in Japanese (a smaller English site can be found there, too).