Yoshiro Nakamura is a rare bird among Japanese directors today. Though he has worked at the top of the industry, where the TV networks and Toho rule, he has so far avoided making the usual Japanese commercial film based on a hit manga, game or TV drama.
Instead he prefers to find material that interests him — the novels of Kotaro Isaka have been a particularly fruitful source — and turn it into a film that often goes beyond its mystery or thriller story line to say something about the strangeness of reality or the connectedness of everything. That is, the sort of quasi-mystical/transcendental themes that mainstream films here strenuously avoid, though Nakamura’s treatment of them is anything but arty. His role model is not Andrei Tarkovsky or Robert Bresson, but M. Night Shyamalan of “The Sixth Sense” fame.
His new film, “Chonmage Purin” (“Chonmage Pudding”) has plenty of strangeness in it, but of the sweetly whimsical, TV sitcom sort. It is as though Nakamura wanted to take a break from such knottily plotted, ingeniously executed films as “Golden Slumber,” “Fish Story” and “Ahiru to Kamo no Koinrokka” (“The Coin Locker of the Duck and Drake”), while trying to entertain the wider audience — particularly Mom, Dad and the kids.
“Chonmage Purin” is a typical Nakamura film in its juxtaposition of the fantastic and the everyday. What is not Nakamura-like is the story, based on a novel by Gen Araki and scripted by Nakamura, which is predictable and formulaic, if in a likeably off-kilter way.
The chonmage of the title belongs to one Yasubei (Ryo Nishikikido), an earnest young samurai who finds himself, one fine day, in present-day Tokyo, 180 years after his own time. He encounters a single mom, Hiroko (Rie Tomosaka), walking with her kindergartner son, Tomoya (Fuku Suzuki), and the result is mutual bafflement. She thinks he is an actor who has somehow strayed from a period drama shoot; he cannot comprehend a woman on her own, minus a husband, family or clan.
But Yasubei is starving and shelterless and Hiroko, through clever plot turns I won’t reveal, ends up taking him in. Yasubei, being a properly raised son of Edo, feels obligated to repay her kindness — and decides to do so by relieving Hiroko of her household burdens so she can dedicate herself to her corporate job. Putting his swords on a shelf and donning modern clothes, he becomes her full-time cook, maid and baby-sitter.
Sound absurd? But Yasubei takes to his new role of house-husband (minus the sexual part) with characteristic straight-arrow dedication. He diligently prepares tasty, healthy Japanese-style breakfasts, firmly but gently cures Tomoya of his spoiled, crybaby ways and otherwise transforms Hiroko’s formerly chaotic little household into a smoothly running, harmonious unit.
Meanwhile, Yasubei becomes infatuated with Western-style desserts, beginning with a plastic cup of purin (pudding) given to him by Tomoya. Using cookbooks and TV cooking shows as his guides, he whips up fabulous concoctions that soon have Hiroko and her friends oohing and aahing. With Hiroko’s encouragement, he enters a father-son cake-making contest with Tomoya. This, of course, is against contest rules, but by this time, Hiroko is thinking that this guy with the piercing eyes and perfect, if old-fashioned, manners might make a great daddy for real.
So far, so entertaining — and original. Unlike nearly every other time-travel film ever made here, from the 1979 “Sengoku Jieitai” (“G.I. Samurai”) to the 2009 “Ballad,” “Chonmage Purin” is not obsessed with the problem of time travel itself. Instead of frantically trying to return to the 1820s, Yasubei soon accepts that, barring the same miracle that brought him to 2010, he is stuck — and has to adapt.
Also, though he stays true to his samurai code, Yasubei is not a simplistic exemplar of conservative, “real Japanese” values, stiff-neckedly showing corrupt moderns how to behave. Instead, he is more like the samurai who, as the feudal era died and the Meiji Period dawned, absorbed modern learning like sponges — and thrived as a consequence.
The second-act plot complications, however, follow well-worn dramatic rails to an ending that is utterly conventional, while making a few droll comic stops on the way. Too bad, since the three principals, beginning with rising TV drama star Nishikikido, turn in fresh, uncliched performances, while bonding believably.
The real home for “Chonmage Purin” is the small screen, where the scrumptious- looking desserts and the buff Nishikikido will naturally attract eyeballs. I probably won’t be tuning in, though — at least until I lose a few more kilos. Tasty it may be, but purin really puts it on.