Firefly Dreams (Ichiban utsukushii natsu) (2001)
"I wish we'd been girls together. We'd have been great friends."- Mrs. Koide (Yoshie Minami)
Stars: Maho Ukai, Yoshie Minami
Other Stars: Tsutomu Niwa, Etsuko Kimata
Director: John Williams
MPAA Rating: Not Rated for brief violence (a chicken is slaughtered)
Run Time: 01h:40m:32s
Release Date: 2004-03-16
DVD ReviewLast summer, I had a unique experience. I studied abroad for five weeks in Copenhagen, Denmark and Stockholm, Sweden. It was a fantastic, enlightening experience, but one that I know will be fleeting in many ways. Granted, the places, people, and events I experienced will always be remembered, but I know the details will eventually fade. Pictures and mementos from the trip may conjure up some of these forgotten bits, but it will never be as vivid as I may like. Firefly Dreams addresses this phenomenon of fleeting moments. "Firefly" does not refer to the insect itself, but rather its qualities, shared by these memories and events that fade with time. Like my European experience, the setting is summertime, and its impact, lasting.
Naomi (Maho Ukai) is your standard dyed-blonde Japanese city brat, circa 2001. She is going through the expected period of teenage rebellion: skipping school, dabbling in forbidden activities, simply wandering aimlessly, looking for direction, or just a good time. The realities of life are still foreign to her; maturity is still a distant concept. Her parents grow weary of her consistent delinquency and send her to work at her aunt's inn, located amidst the gorgeous wilderness of central Japan. This decision is made under the guise of helping Naomi, but she knows better: Her parents' marriage is on the rocks and her removal from the situation may make a resolution easier to attain.
Ultimately, Naomi takes this in stride. It is fuel for her downtrodden attitude—one that she seemingly revels in. Things begin slowly; she does her chores, flirts with a local delivery boy, secretly smokes, and deals with her mentally challenged cousin, Yumi. The centerpiece of the film is her relationship with Mrs. Koide (Yoshie Minami), an aging actress whose past remains a mystery. Naomi checks in on her frequently, and over time, a close connection develops. This bond defies convention—it is not the clichéd mentor/protégé relationship. These two are peers, with similar concerns, wants, and needs. They share stories, experiences, and simple pleasures. Naomi certainly matures as a result, but it is not an unrealistic, drastic transformation. Before the tale ends, tragic events unfold, culminating in an emotional resolution that affected me deeply.
When Firefly Dreams came along, I was curious. I had heard that it featured some fine photography, good performances, and was directed by John Williams. The famous film composer? No. The classical guitarist? No. The other John Williams, from Wales. Wait, this is a Japanese film, right? Right. Williams, an English professor who has taught in Japan for some time, found that his host country would be an ideal place to launch his filmmaking career. And his film is a rare animal. Made in Japan by a British director, it is a unique product of both East and West. Originally written in English, Williams' screenplay was translated into Japanese to accommodate its setting.
Like a live-action Miyazaki, this is an exquisitely presented story that fully utilizes the gorgeous setting of Horiacho, a relatively untouched and unspoiled region of central Japan. Williams' camera soaks in the lush details of this glorious location, finding unique vistas, compositions and textures—this is some of the best cinematography I have seen in a while. His touch is evident throughout, producing an end product with a decidedly Eastern feel; clearly, Williams has seen a Japanese film or two. Connections can be drawn to Kurosawa's Rhapsody in August, among others. I also admired his subtlety throughout the picture. Some major events are left to the imagination of the viewer and are not shown on screen. They are simply suggested, allowing the viewer to fill in the blanks. Williams clearly respects the intelligence of the audience, giving the film a realistic feel. Like real life, not all loose ends are eventually tied.
Performances are stellar. Naomi, played by Maho Ukai, gives an astonishingly natural performance that is entirely believable. At first, I was repelled by her character, whose outwardly bratty, whiny attitude made her unlikable. This is exactly what Williams wanted to accomplish, making her eventual transformation all the more noticeable. Yoshie Minami plays Mrs. Koide with the right level of emotion, mixed with required restraint. She emotes a rich sense of history on screen, no doubt assisted by her long and successful real-life career, which included a small role in Kurosawa's splendid Ikiru.
This is the kind of film that leaves you wanting more. It is an immersing experience that truly affected me. I look forward to revisiting its detailed world and looking for many subtleties I may have missed. Like a good wheel of brie, this is a film that will age well, even if Naomi's dyed-blonde hair goes out of style. In the end, it is a timeless story that could have been told in any setting.
Rating for Style: A
Rating for Substance: A
|Aspect Ratio||1.85:1 - Widescreen|
|Original Aspect Ratio||yes|
Image Transfer Review: Wellspring's anamorphic transfer is passable, but has some issues. Signs of digital over-enhancement are not evident, and detail is relatively good. However, the image has a somewhat hazy, grainy appearance, the level of which varies from scene to scene. I also notices some very minor motion "jaggies" from time to time. A pleasant image, but far from perfect.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: The audio is pleasant. Presented in Japanese 5.1 or 2.0 stereo, this is a rather natural mix. The 5.1 track has some nice atmospheric fill that greatly enhances some of the natural settings and brings out the distinct, catchy guitar score. Don't expect any dynamic directional panning—it's not that kind of movie. Dialogue is well anchored to the front, and the soundstage is nicely expansive. The 2.0 track is a solid stereo mix, but go with the 5.1 if you have the equipment.
Audio Transfer Grade: B+
Disc ExtrasFull Motion menu with music
Scene Access with 24 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
8 Other Trailer(s) featuring Carnage, Les Destinees, Flowers of Shanghai, Ran, Russian Ark, Under the Sand, What Time Is It There?, Yi Yi
1 Feature/Episode commentary by director John Williams
Packaging: unmarked keepcase
Extras Review: Wellspring has assembled a fine collection of extras for this relatively unknown film. First up is a full length audio commentary by director John Williams. Williams is very open and descriptive, exploring every aspect of the film's production, from writing, challenges, locations, casting and even some interesting on set anecdotes.
Next is a lengthy interview with the director (30m:10s). Williams discusses some of the same topics covered in his commentary, spurred on by some detailed questions from his off screen interviewer. Strangely, this footage appears to be unedited and is a bit rough around the edges. It's raw, but interesting.
The disc also contains the film's theatrical trailer, a slew of trailers for other Wellspring releases, weblinks and a 10% discount offer for an online art film retailer.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsA truly wonderful film that should have gained more exposure, John Williams' Firefly Dreams is a delicate, beautifully crafted tale of one girl's summer journey. Even though the details of Naomi's relationship with Mrs. Koide may fade, their impact will not be forgotten. Wellspring's effort is solid—certainly a step up from their usual release.
I love when I am surprised by a film. This is certainly one of those times. A gem not to be missed, this one is highly recommended.
Matt Peterson 2004-03-14