It's based on a novel and I think it's about growing up. It's typical of most Japanese films in that it's slow, delicate, closely observed and feels as if the director's observing reality rather than making a movie. The ending will make you blink. Closing credits? Now? However it's also likeable, at peace with itself and carrying its running time lightly.
Satoshi Tsumabuki plays a university student who learns of an old woman who's been pushing a pram down a road for ten years. She's famous among the customers at the mah-jong club where he works part-time. They want to know what's in that pram. Tsumabuki ends up finding out, which brings him together with a girl his age (Chizuru Ikewaki) who's never been able to use her legs.
One of the more striking things about this film is a negative one, i.e. what it's not. It hurts to imagine the Hollywood version of this film. A romance between a charming student and a spiky, insular handicapped girl. You'd be reeling under the weight of the moral of the story. In every scene, you'd feel the hand of the scriptwriter. The ending and the shape of the entire film would be obvious after you'd watched only the first twenty minutes. Here, though, that's not true. It's got that Japanese air of simplicity and reality that was such an asset to J-horror, although of course this film has nothing to do with horror. It doesn't force anything. It just follows its characters for 116 minutes, letting them be themselves. People get together and break up. Will Tsumabuki and Ikewaki get married and live happily ever after? You genuinely don't know... although it eventually becomes clear that in fact we've known since the very beginning of the film.
Tsumabuki (Waterboys, The Golden Hour) is charming and endlessly likeable here, but there's more to his performance than that. This film will have you watching relationships unfolding or changing in the way someone hugs his girlfriend, or the way he says that he's driving. Tsumabuki has various girlfriends in this film, but there's always something to observe in their scenes together. The sex scenes aren't just sex scenes, but instead will be wordlessly saying things about the characters. Is A secretly unsure about B? Is C starting to drift away? Tsumabuki's performance here won best actor awards from Kinema Junpo and from the Hochi Film Awards.
As for Ikewaki, she's interesting in how strange she isn't. Given her backstory, her disability and her caveman-like grandmother, you'd expect her to be far more broken and movie-eccentric. She's not. She's moulded herself into the shape of her peculiar life, but she's basically a normal person. Ikewaki plays her with directness and without vanity (as an actress) or sentimentality.
Anyway, as I said, I think the film's about growing up. Tsumabuki goes from girlfriend to girlfriend, not always smoothly or successfully. He starts out as a student in a modest part-time job. He goes to drunken parties. He graduates, attends job interviews and knows bereavement. At one point, the film says "one year later". It's a detailed portrayal of these different stages of his life, accompanied by subtle changes in Tsumabuki himself. It's Ikewaki who's got even more growing up to do, though, albeit from a more unconventional starting point. Look at how she is at the beginning. She's metaphorically an infant. She interacts with the world by slashing at it with a carving knife and we're surprised to learn that she can talk. I think the film's ending falls into place if you think about how she develops over the course of the film and where she is at the end.
Tomoko didn't like the editing, though. It's predictable to the point of being metronomic in how much dead time it allows at the start of scenes, or the length of the individual cuts in establishing montages. She was rewinding afterwards to point out the scenes where the director had just told the actors to ad-lib and told the cameraman to follow them. Tomoko didn't think it was the editor's fault, though, but instead that it was the director being detailed in his requirements and not allowing his editor any freedom. It makes the film look plain and somewhat dull, but personally I see that as a feature rather than a defect. It's part of that anti-Hollywood simplicity I was talking about.
The film leaves careful gaps. What's going on with the blood on the wrench? Did a certain person die there, or is that just my imagination trying to join dots that don't belong together? I want to rewind for another look at what's on the floor. Even more obviously, we're hardly told anything at all about Neanderthal Granny. "Damaged goods." That's harsh. Is there something behind that? Don't know.
Silly observation: for one brief moment, late in the day, I was convinced that we were about to learn that Ikewaki was a magically transformed mermaid. I was going mad, but the idea fits. The sea. The fish. The legs!
Everyone has an Osaka accent, but that's okay because even the Japanese DVD has English subtitles.
This was voted the fourth best Japanese film of the year in the Kinema Junpo poll of film critics. I don't have a problem with that. It's a delicate film, in which most of what it's saying is being said wordlessly or indirectly, for us to read between the lines. That's good, obviously. The film holds your attention by rewarding detailed viewing. Look at the way the women in Tsumabuki's life see each other. They talk of "weapons", which has nothing to do with Ikewaki literally carrying one. Look at the simple things Ikewaki wants. Flowers, cats and a cloud. Look at what she said in the fish tank love hotel... on some level, did she know? This is a film that will have probably gone over a lot of heads, especially with the ending, but it's also very good.