By MIKEY HIRANO CULROSS
RAFU ENTERTAINMENT EDITOR
I was already a fan of “White On Rice” well before screening it, for one basic reason: this is a film full of Asian Americans that is not centered around their ethnicity.
Nobody performs karate nor kung fu, there are no nerdy science geeks and it’s not set during the Vietnam War. It is a story that focuses on individuals and their problems, one that could feature anyone of any heritage.
“The way I look at it, it’s a movie that just happens to star some Japanese and Asian American actors,” said Dave Boyle, the 27-year-old director. “It’s not necessarily a Japanese-themed movie, it’s just who they are.”
Boyle, who has never been to Japan, worked as a missionary in Australia and was exposed to the Japanese community there. Combined with his interest in Japanese films, he scored some admirable success with his 2006 debut, “Big Dreams In Little Tokyo.” It was an actor in a minute bit part, Hiroshi Watanabe, who caught Boyle’s eye and was a no-brainer to head the cast of “White On Rice.”
“He’s such a larger-than-life personality on screen, I knew he was the guy to do this story,” he said of Watanabe, whose credits include such Hollywood blockbusters as “Letters From Iwo Jima” and “The Last Samurai.” Unlike his brief supporting spots in those movies, “White On Rice” relies squarely on Watanabe’s appeal as a star.
And his appeal is instantly apparent upon meeting him. In an interview in a Miracle Mile high-rise, the native of Tokyo’s Minato ward is courteous and straightforward, conscious of his imperfect English but preferring to carry through the conversation without reverting to Japanese. He is essentially the same guy in person as he is on screen: simple and genuine, precisely the sort of personality needed to carry Boyle’s modestly-budgeted feature.
“I worked with Dave on his first film, just one small part, and he remembered me, so I was very happy about that,” Watanabe said. “He speaks Japanese and I was really surprised to learn that he can read it, too. Classic Japanese stories, like ‘Kinkakuji,’” the native title of Yukio Mishima’s “Golden Pavilion.”
A further note of praise for “White On Rice” is deserved for the decision not to take pains to clarify Watanabe’s halted English pronunciation. While those completely unfamiliar with a Japanese accent might miss a word here and there, his diction lends a distinctly human aspect that would otherwise have been lost in trying to refine his speech.
The story centers around Jimmy (Watanabe,) not so recently divorced from his wife in Japan, who has found it difficult to rebound from his emotional earthquake and is living in his sister’s Salt Lake City basement. The sister, played by Japanese star Nae Yuuki, has to repeatedly persuade her much older husband (Mio Takada) to let him stay until he gets back on his feet, as he shares a room with their adolescent son, Bob (newcomer Justin Kwong.)
The tension builds when Tak’s niece, recent college graduate Ramona (Lynn Chen) moves in and becomes the object of Jimmy’s infatuation. The story moves through some revealing–if not predictable–moments as we learn about the shortcomings of several of the characters, all of whom have kept their unhappiness hidden, except Jimmy, who wears his pain like a Mardi Gras mask.
Watanabe said he was excited to jump into the lead role, essentially because it had nothing to do with being Japanese and everything to do with being human.
“This guy’s wife has left him, so he’s already depressed,” he said. “Many people can relate to the experience of a painful breakup and they want to find someone new. It’s that kind of sadness.
“Also, he’s kind of immature, like a lovable loser, the kind of character you can find in American sitcoms. Americans or Japanese or anyone can understand his feeling.”
Boyle’s script, co-written with Joel Clark, is full of clever, occasionally hilarious lines, but they often fall victim to ill-timed editing. The pathos for the “lovable loser” drops considerably when his preoccupation with Ramona approaches the level of stalking.
Despite its flaws, “White On Rice” (whose title never seems significant to its story) reaches a standard that is sadly lacking in mainstream narrative. It is a story of common experience that is not dependent on the appearance nor lineage of its cast. Boyle said that he strives for cross-cultural appeal in his films, citing as an example the exhaustive explanations of ramen noodles in Juzo Itami’s classic, “Tampopo.”
“That’s something I want in my films. I want them to be universal, but also very detailed. I want people to understand the characters and feel like it’s the real world in the movie, that they could step into the story and be any one of those people,” Boyle said.
Watanabe said that when he read the script, he was reminded of the simple pleasures of the popular “Tora-san” film series in Japan.
“Tora-san is kind of a loser, but he makes us feel for him and for ourselves. I think our film is a kind of Tora-san film for American tastes. I’m very happy to be working within that kind of character.”
“White On Rice” opened Friday in selected theaters. 85 minutes, rated PG-13. More information can be found at www.whiteonricethemovie.com.