Japan Cuts 2013 Review: I HAVE TO BUY NEW SHOES, An Irresistibly Seductive, Bittersweet Romantic Comedy

A romantic movie set in the city of Paris may come across as, and may indeed be, the ultimate cinematic cliché, but writer-director Kitagawa Eriko and producer-cinematographer Iwai Shunji unerringly make it work in I Have to Buy New Shoes, an incredibly seductive and charming film that beautifully honors romance in all its dimensions. 

Please, I beg you, don't let the title, which makes it sound like some brain-dead chick flick, put you off. It absolutely makes sense in the context of the film, but it unfortunately lends a false first impression. This is anything but brainless: it is a funny, poignant, bittersweet movie with wonderful performances that sweeps you up in its embrace and never lets go, right through to its melancholy yet hopeful conclusion.

I Have to Buy New Shoes begins with a series of black and white photographs showing some of the local color and iconic landmarks of its Paris setting. These are presumably photographs taken by Yagami Sen (Mukai Osamu), a commercial photographer who has been dragged to Paris by his insistent sister Suzume (Kiritani Mirei), for a purpose that she doesn't reveal to her brother. It seems that they are about to have a fun time seeing the sights when Suzume does something inexplicable: with the pretense of taking some photos near the Seine, she suddenly takes off in their cab, ditching Sen by the side of the road, greatly confusing and angering him. 

As Sen angrily paces around, his luggage and other belongings strewn on the ground around him, suddenly comes the obligatory romantic comedy meet-cute scene. A woman rushing past on her way to an appointment slips on Sen's passport, breaking the heel of her shoe. This woman is Teshigawara Aoi (Nakayama Miho), a Japanese expat who edits a free local Japanese newspaper. The two strike up an instant rapport, and after Aoi advises that Sen go to the embassy for a replacement passport, and Sen uses Krazy Glue to repair Aoi's shoe, they part company.

Aoi and Sen soon reconnect when Sen asks her to help him find the hotel where he and Suzume are staying; Suzume took the note that had the name of the hotel on it when she left him. Aoi uses her newspaper contacts to do some sleuthing, and figures out the name of the hotel. Then comes a beautifully constructed sequence: Aoi guides Sen to the hotel by mobile phone, and as they converse with each other and she steers him through iconic Paris landmarks - the Champs-Élysées, the Eiffel Tower, the Notre-Dame Cathedral - it becomes very clear that something very special is developing between the two of them. The sequence is capped off by a wonderful visual surprise, one that marks the real start of their brief three-day romance - Sen is due to return to Tokyo then.

Meanwhile, Suzume pays a surprise visit to her boyfriend Kango (Ayano Go), which is the real reason for her visit to Paris. Kango left Japan six months earlier to pursue his dream of being a working artist in Paris. Suzume spends her time trying to reconnect with Kango, looking for him to be as committed to her as he is to his art. The action shuttles back and forth between the romances both siblings are involved in, although much stronger emphasis is placed on Aoi and Sen's story.

I Have to Buy New Shoes is Kitagawa's second feature; her first, Halfway (which closed the 2009 edition of Japan Cuts), was a story of a high school romance - also produced by Iwai - that possessed similarly lovely and bittersweet qualities to this new film. Here, those qualities are even more refined and sublime. Aoi and Sen's relationship slowly blossoms, the restless camerawork following them as the offbeat comedy - Aoi gets really drunk and the lost Sen ends up sleeping in her bathtub - subtly shifts to the very emotional reveal of Aoi's painful past. And at every point, Kitagawa maintains the delicate, magical spell of these actors' considerable screen chemistry, as well as their gorgeous surroundings, reveling in the sheer joy of this small-scale romantic spectacle.

The only caveat to this, and this sparking movie's one flaw, is that the Suzume-Kango storyline is not nearly as compelling as the Aoi-Sen one, and the former often comes across as an unnecessary and superfluous distraction from the latter. However, this proves to be a minor structural problem, as not very much time is devoted to Suzume and Kango's relationship.

I Have to Buy New Shoes comes up aces in all departments. Nakayama Miho, who starred in Iwai's Love Letter (1995), eighteen years ago, has grown into a sexy and wonderfully elegant actress as adept at physical comedy as her more serious moments. Just like her character, Nakayama is a long-time resident of Paris, clearly comfortable with the language and culture. This adds to the charm of her performance, making even a very brief scene such as the one where visits an Easter-egg shop for an article a delight to watch. Mukai Osamu, while not making as deep an impression as Nakayama, nevertheless is quietly effective as a romantic counterpart. And though there is well over a decade's difference in their ages, this isn't unduly dwelled upon, yet another testament to the tonal astuteness of Kitagawa's scenario.

These fine performances are graced with other beautifully crafted elements such as Iwai's incandescent camerawork which suffuses Paris with a magical glow, bringing new visual life to even such over-familiar landmarks as the Eiffel Tower. Sakamoto Ryuichi's spare piano score is also a delight, providing a melancholy counterpoint to this exquisite romantic comedy.
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