“The Witch of the West Is Dead,” Kaho Nashiki’s popular novel about an insecure girl’s transformative visit to her grandmother’s house deep in the woods has been made into a fine, deeply felt coming-of-age movie by veteran writer-director Shunichi Nagasaki. Though something of a B.O. underperformer in its local midsummer ’08 release, fest play abroad, care of supportive Nippon-savvy programmers, as well as star Sachi Parker’s lovely perf will boost the film’s offshore profile, though some auds may search for a nonexistent link to “The Wizard of Oz.”
What Nagasaki (“Heart, Beating in the Dark”) has managed is a canny fusion of the “home drama” genre and fairy-tale mode — and, by applying a gentle touch, has created a film that plays honestly to patient teens and parents willing to read subtitles. Parker, daughter of Japanese-fluent Shirley MacLaine, is fascinating as the grandmother, the British widow of a Japanese scholar, who lives out her belief in the magical powers of (good) witches.
Despite narrative bookending that’s too predictable, the story proper simply entails young Mai (Mayu Takahashi) refusing to return to school due to hazing and alienation, with her concerned and overworked parents’ (Ryo, Nao Omori) solution: Send Mai to grandmother’s country place for a month of peace and reflection.
Nagasaki manages to place the viewer entirely within Mai’s frame of mind, without exploiting the effect. Her unfolding experiences in the woods, the stunning nearby meadows and glens, and inside the charming home — a kind of real-world equivalent to a gingerbread house — flood the patient viewer with a sense of calm and domestic tranquility.
Thus, the simple acts of tending to a plant in grandmother’s small greenhouse or collecting wild strawberries and making them into jam become an end in themselves, with grandmother craftily inserting into Mai’s often stubborn and neurotic head the notion that life is most enjoyable in the sheer doing of things. The girl soon opens up about her fears of her peers back home, with grandmother offering her certain wisdom derived from her life as a, yes, witch. To Nagasaki’s credit, nary a magic stunt appears onscreen.
A goofy, jolly postman (Katsumi Takahashi), and gruff, crude — and, for Mai, scary — handyman neighbor (Yuichi Kimura) — offer contrasting, but schematic, shades of male behavior. The lessons she learns from these two, as well as a sad misunderstanding with her grandmother, are sometimes too apparent, but the film’s commitment to its gentle humanism remains disarmingly lovely.
Parker’s exquisite performance recalls the tradition of understated portrayals of supportive, motherly women in a host of Ozu’s films, though non-Japanese auds may not pick up on the actor’s extraordinary ability to capture how completely this Brit woman has adapted to local ways. Takahashi’s nuanced interaction with Parker, comprising a huge portion of the film, is natural and heartfelt.
Lenser Makoto Watanabe revels in the pastoral bliss, but also manages expressive day and night settings inside grandma’s you-so-want-to-live-there house. Technical craft is top-flight.