Takemoto, a shy and reserved architecture student, is in love with Hagu, the shy and reserved abstract painter. She, in turn, is in love with Morita, who is anything but shy. He is a sculptor, and he's older than the other kids at his art college. It's because he couldn't care less about following the proper path, he does as he pleases. Mayama has similar stubborn traits. He's in love with the older woman who runs the design company he's been temping at. Even after she fires him when his true feelings are revealed, he continues to pine after her. (In America, we call it "stalking.") This makes him blind to Yamada, the sweet girl who would break him out of this pattern of self-immolation, if only he'd give her a chance.
There is an Asobi Seksu song called "I'm Happy But You Don't Like Me" that would have been perfect for Honey and Clover. If nothing else, they should rip off the title and use it for the tagline on the poster. Everyone in the story dismisses available affection in order to continue their pursuit of the impossible. At one point, it even seems like Takemoto (Sho Sakurai) and Yamada (Megumi Seki) see how dumb everyone else is being and consider jumping ship together. Alas, that is not to be. It's as if they thrive on being rejected.
Honey and Clover is the latest in an ongoing line of Japanese imports that began life as a comic book. The manga by Chica Umino is currently being serialized in the magazine Shojo Beat, published by Viz, who are also releasing this movie. Like most manga, Honey and Clover is a long, sprawling soap opera that ran in a Japanese comics anthology for many years and was then published as a series of books. First-time director Masahiro Takada, collaborating with screenwriter Masahiko Kawahara, has done an admirable job compressing the story to bring the film in under two hours. Smartly, less plausible slapstick subplots have been tossed out the window and the unwieldy cast has been shaved down to the core five kids.
At the same time, however, it feels like Takada also hollowed out most of the characters. They are all easily described by their basic personalities in my introduction because that's about as deep as the characterization gets. Takemoto is never more than the timid good guy who will always do the right thing, Morita (Yusuke Iseya, Casshern) is the selfish rebel that will make everyone mad, and Mayama (Ryo Kase, Letters from Iwo Jima) is the quiet nerd that knows a thing or two about persistence. Their roles are laid out for them, and they stick to the plan. It works okay as far as the boys are concerned, but Hagu (Yu Aoi, Hula Girls) doesn't fare nearly as well. She's gone from being the cute and mysterious girl that everyone in the comic wants to know about to being the near autistic painter silently slapping color on a canvas in the corner, garnering hardly any attention at all.
Predictably generally works in both romantic pictures and coming of age stories, so Honey and Clover manages to be passable viewing thanks to the good grace of all the better movies that have come before. As viewers, we can fill in the blanks, it's territory we've covered. Thus, the film can't fail to deliver a certain satisfaction of at least arriving at the destination point that's been mapped out for it by convention. It's like going to Disneyland, you can't fault the Matterhorn for always being the first thing you see in the distance. In this case, the art college setting serves the director well, giving him occasional license to indulge in some of the characters' inner fantasies. The fact that these fantasies quickly fade away after the first reel seems like a blown opportunity. What better way to have the young lovers reveal themselves then through their dreams? Not only would it allow us to better understand the art we see them creating, but it would also service the overall goal of the film. By having their fantasies intersect and forcing them to interact with one another, the students would grow up and enter the real world. Mission accomplished!
Chances are, the Honey and Clover adaptation is probably a film that will mainly appeal to fans of the comic book. For the rest of you, you aren't going to hate it, but you'll definitely feel like something was lost in translation.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with JoŽlle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the comedy series Spell Checkers, again with Jones and artist Nicolas Hitori de. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.