Reviewby Kim Morrissy,
Haikara-San: Here Comes Miss Modern
Benio Hanamura lost her mother when she was very young and has been raised by her father, a high-ranking official in the Japanese army. As a result, she has grown into a tomboy—contrary to traditional Japanese notions of femininity, she studies kendo, drinks sake, dresses in outlandish-looking Western fashions instead of the traditional kimono, and isn't as interested in housework as she is in literature. She also rejects the idea of arranged marriages and believes in a woman's right to a career and to marry for love. When she finds out that she is engaged to Shinobu Ijūin, a second lieutenant in the army, she schemes to get out of the marriage.
This movie's Japanese title, Haikara-san ga Tōru, translates roughly to “Here Comes a Modern Woman,” but the film itself is a blast from the past. It's an adaptation of a 1970s shojo manga, which was set in the Japan of the 1920s. Even the original manga was like a time capsule, capturing the ideals of a “modern woman” from a time long gone. So it's surprising how resonant that story still is today, over 40 years after the manga's publication.
Haikara-San: Here Comes Miss Modern follows the story of a tomboyish girl named Benio, who fails spectacularly at living up to the “good wife, wise mother” ideal of womanhood. She believes that women have a right to a career and rejects the idea of arranged marriages, especially after she finds herself betrothed to a man she knows nothing about.
The narrative follows the typical shojo formula in many respects, but that doesn't get in the way of its positive messages. At first, Benio is more of a selfish brat than a feminist icon, and she does eventually fall in love with her suave and handsome fiancé, but she also proves to be self-sufficient when he's not around, taking charge of her own fate in a way that really makes her seem ahead of her time.
Haikara-San works as a romance largely because of how likable the leads are. The film opts to tone down some of Benio's histrionics from the manga so that her immaturity comes across as endearing rather than annoying. As for the male lead, a blond soldier named Shinobu, his patience for Benio is saintly. He never speaks down to Benio, and his actions never take the spotlight away from her coming-of-age story. He silently supports her instead of actively trying to woo her, so that it never feels like she was pressured into making her decisions.
Unfortunately, the second half of the film is weaker than the first half. The adaptation begins rushing through the events in the manga, including crucial scenes for Benio's character development. It ends up feeling like a Sparknotes version of the story, and the emotional impact doesn't quite match what came before. The film also ends on a cliffhanger, which threatens to change the direction of the story into “soap opera” territory. Haikara-San still has the potential to entertain, but I suspect that the appeal of the second film will be very different from the first one.
Despite this, I would say that the film is a fine adaptation overall. In particular, it does a fantastic job updating the visual style and presentation for a modern audience, while keeping the core themes intact. The anime character designs hearken back to a bygone era of classic shojo aesthetics—most of the the characters have big doe eyes and huge eyelashes, and the men have distinctly feminized features. At the same time, the anime designs look quite sharp and modern. Shinobu's manga design may have been perceived as handsome once, but his thick lips and curly hair make him appear quite dated nowadays. His anime film design removes those elements to better appeal to modern tastes.
Visually, Haikara-San reminds me a lot of Penguindrum—and not without reason, since the two anime share the same character designer. Haikara-San isn't quite as artsy or as fantastical as Penguindrum, but it does share the same penchant for old-school shojo aesthetics. The film never attempts to exaggerate its shojo roots, but its key romantic scenes do feature soft lighting and rosy filters. It comes across as an earnest attempt to replicate the mood of the original manga, and the effect is incredibly nostalgic. You don't see anime like this very often these days, and that's a real shame.
In general, Haikara-San looks just fine. While there are no standout moments of animation, the backgrounds capture a romanticized image of the Taisho Era very well. The film is lush with images of tall, stately buildings, many of them based off historical photos. The contrast between the warm colors of Tokyo and the wintry backdrop of the Siberian warfront was especially evocative. While this film was not especially dedicated to historical accuracy, it does capture the mood of the era well.
The film's direction is also energetic and snappy, with plenty of visual quirks that help spice up the delivery of certain scenes. In one scene, a character makes a drawn-out confession of love, and the camera slowly revolves around him until it ends up showing the recipient's baffled reaction. In another scene, Benio has a heated argument with her father, and the two of them bang the table as they shout, causing a vase to move around each time. These visual touches end up enhancing the quirky, comedic charm of the script, and they're a definite improvement on the manga's dated visuals.
Michiru Oshima's soundtrack is also worth mentioning as one of the film's highlights. Her score is reminiscent of her work on Snow White with the Red Hair, which also had prominent usage of oboes and violins. It perfectly captures the quaint and romantic mood of the film, like something out of a fairytale.
Overall, Haikara-San is one of the best film adaptations of a classic shojo manga one could ask for. Aside from an unfortunate amount of cutting and the lopsided pacing in the film's second half, this adaptation perfectly captures the tone and style of the original manga. The character designs are particular good, honoring the roots of the manga while looking much more appealing for a modern audience. And it certainly does help that the leads are voiced by Saori Hayami and Mamoru Miyano, who perform their roles with irresistible charisma.
How much you get out of Haikara-San: Here Comes Miss Modern will probably depend on how much nostalgia you have for old-school shojo manga, but this is still a solid romance film in its own right. I'm cautious about recommending it too strongly at the moment, because the story is still incomplete after this first film. It remains to be seen whether the second film can capitalize on the strengths of the first, or whether it will be constrained by the flaws in its source material.
Overall : B+
Story : B-
Animation : B
Art : B+
Music : A-
+ Captures old-school shojo charm perfectly, likable lead characters, great character designs and music
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