Reviewed By Brian McKay
Posted 03/10/04 09:26:33

"Strangers on a Tokyo train"
5 stars (Awesome)

One thing I noticed during my visit to Tokyo last year is that (with the occasional exception of a young couple or a gaggle of schoolgirls) hardly anyone talks to each other on the subway. Even when crammed in like sardines, people will read, listen to music, sleep, or otherwise blithely ignore each other’s existence. People who wait on the same platform and ride the same train for years may never even take the time to learn each other’s names. But what if, one morning, one person decided to change all that?

That person is Yumi (Yumi Endo), a pretty-but-shy girl in her twenties who has ridden the train to work with the same group of people for three years, but never spoken to any of them. Letting her curiosity finally get the best of her, she begins to make in-depth observations of her fellow commuters and take meticulous notes. Her attention is particularly drawn to a handsome but quiet young businessman who she recognizes all the way back from her kindergarten years, but who she is sure has completely forgotten about her. Although they have not spoken all this time, he has quietly won her over through small but significant acts of kindness or bravery towards his fellow commuters – like the time he rescues a schoolgirl from being groped by an older man, simply by offering her his seat and then facing the other man down until he slinks away.

The schoolgirl in question is another member of the group that Yumi has been spying on. As we follow her path, we see that she is a lonely teen desperately seeking acceptance from a group of “cool kids” who take advantage of her because she has money to spend, and then ridicule her mercilessly. She also has an absentee mother who apparently keeps putting money in her daughter’s pocket to compensate for the fact that she’s never around. As she grows increasingly depressed, the schoolgirl finds herself on a seemingly inexorable slide towards suicide – and the only thing that might prevent her from taking that route is a tiny gesture of friendship from Yumi.

Meanwhile, Yumi receives a text message on her cell phone telling her that she’s been fired for being late “yet again”. Far from upset, however, she embraces the opportunity to follow the young businessman and learn more about the object of her attraction. The result is a surprisingly heartwarming and funny pursuit through the streets of Tokyo that will bring her face to face with her destiny.

Doki-Doki (The Japanese expression for a beating heart that denotes nervousness or butterflies in the stomach) was the centerpiece of the S.F. Asian-American Film Festival’s Tokyo Stories shorts compilation, and was by far the strongest entry. Although I hate to toss out descriptions like “sweet-natured” and “good-hearted”, it is all that and more, having a way of sneaking under one’s radar to deposit a payload of the warm fuzzies. It is perhaps vaguely reminiscent of Amelie, only without all of the surreal touches and over-the-top silliness that were often overused to the point of distraction in an otherwise wonderful film. And like the recent Danish Dogme film Open Hearts, it works so well because the characters and their emotions feel sincere, natural, and uncontrived. What’s most surprising is that this thirty-minute short film (which could have easily been expanded into a full-length feature) was made not by a Tokyo resident, but by Chris Eska, a young director who was raised in a small Texas town before moving on to UCLA Film School (where Doki-Doki received top honors)

In many ways, the aptly titled DOKI-DOKI is about fear – the fear of embarrassment or rejection, or simply of breaking out of one’s own shell. Yet amid all of the fear and trembling is a message of hope, expressed in the notion that one can control one’s own destiny.

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