Kichitaro Negishi has a typical resume for a Japanese baby boomer director: Graduation from an elite university (Waseda), apprenticeship in the porno industry (Nikkatsu), awards for his first straight feature (“Enrai,” 1981), followed by success as a maker of TV commercials and music videos. Meanwhile, he has continued to make the occasional feature, including “Yuki ni Negau Koto (What the Snow Brings)” (2006), a drama about fraternal strife, set in the world of banei horse racing, that won armfuls of awards, including the Grand Prix at the 2005 Tokyo International Film Festival.
I liked the film more for the gigantic horses, dragging weighted sledges around a track in an equine version of the tractor pull, than its rather heavy-handed melodrama. But Negishi drew strong, nuanced performances from Yusuke Iseya and Koichi Sato as the warring brothers that earned them accolades as well. (Sato was named Best Actor in the TIFF competition section.)
Negishi’s new film “Sidecar ni Inu (Dog in a Sidecar)” — a drama about the odd summertime friendship between a timid girl and her father’s free-spirited lover, would seem to be a complete change of pace. The tone is lighter and gentler, with the story verging at times on manga-esque fantasy (though it is based on an Akutagawa Prize-winning novel by Yu Nagashima). But the performances, especially those of newcomer Hana Matsumoto as the girl and Yuko Takeuchi as the lover, have a precision and naturalness that are above the genre norm.
Lots of Japanese films try to be engagingly quirky, but end up being merely cartoony. “Sidecar ni Inu,” though, is quirky in ways that reflect life as it is unconventionally lived, even if Nagashima is far more beautiful than any of the spunky, clever, going-my-way ladies I ran across as a kid. (Not that that should be held against her).
The film begins in the present, with its heroine, Kaoru (Mimura), a grown-up woman working as a real-estate agent, while helping out the folksy proprietor (Minori Terada) of a neighborhood fishing pond. There she meets a shy girl who needs her help baiting a hook and reminds her of herself in the fourth grade.
Next we see Kaoru (Matsumoto) as she was at that age, living with her obnoxious little brother (Takeru Taniyama), tense housewife Mom (Sawa Suzuki) and feckless Dad (Arata Furuta), who is trying to run a used-car business but getting nowhere fast. Then Mom walks out, apparently never to return. Soon after a strange woman (Takeuchi) shows up at the door, saying she has come to make dinner. Named Yoko, she is a walking, talking contraction to all the ideas of proper womanhood Kaoru has been taught. She greets the girl with a gruff, cheery “osss,” (the kind of greeting a sumo wrestler would give), slouches in a chair like a teenage boy, snaps her cigarette lighter like a gangster and dumps Kaoru’s favorite snack — chocolate-covered wheat puffs — into a hastily rinsed-out curry bowl, like a keeper feeding an animal at the zoo. (She even calls the snack esa, which means “feed.”) Has this woman no couth manners.
But she is, Kaoru soon realizes, a friendly, open type, with none of the usual grown-up airs of superiority. When Yoko invites her shopping, Kaoru goes along, despite her trepidation — as well as embarrassment when she sees Yoko mount her sleek green racing bike, with its drop handlebars. Kaoru can’t tell her that, at the advanced age of 10, she still can’t ride her own bike, which is quietly rusting under the stairs.
The narrative arc, at this point, looks to be clear: liberated woman helps squelched girl find her wings. There are, however, complications: Yoko is Dad’s girlfriend and Dad, for all his good qualities (his love for Kaoru being the most important) is a born loser and idler, whose idea of a happy home is a Pac-Man arcade game for the kids in one room and a raucous mahjong game with his buddies in the next.
The mystery of what Yoko sees in him is never quite solved, though she seems to find his bearish charms a turn-on. But what matters more, story-wise, is her friendship with Kaoru — and that Negishi films more from Kaoru’s point of view than Yoko’s, as a scary-but-exciting adventure. For Kaoru, Yoko is not a substitute mother, but a guide to a bigger world and a stronger sense of self.
Negishi’s treatment of this story also resembles Yoko’s frank, unfussy personality — he films his people as they are, minus the gloss of sentimentality. Not all of his scenes are cute or funny — he shows the ugly fights, the bitter disappointments and more, but he also clearly likes most of his characters, even the weakest — Dad.
The casting of Yuko Takeuchi exemplifies the film’s go-against-the-grain ethos. First, Takeuchi is a drama star (“Yomigaeri,” “Ima, Ai ni Yukimasu”) who is not known (at least by me) as a character actor with a flair for comedy. Second, as mentioned earlier, she is a beauty more easily imagined in cosmetic ads than in the sack with roly-poly, doughy-faced costar Arata Furuta. Takeuchi, however, brushes aside any doubts about her suitability from her first scene, when she strides into Kaoru’s apartment with her smiling eyes and crooked grin, scaring the poor girl half to death. Comparisons with Katherine Hepburn are not absurd.
The dog in the sidecar? He has a role to play too, one a bit hard to explain. But with as so much else in this poignant, thoroughly likable film, to see is to believe — and understand.