Japanese films targeted at adult men, particularly those made by Toei, often have a dark, heavy, turbulent quality. Japanese has a wonderful, hard-to-translate word for it — dorodoro. Think of slogging across a muddy field at 3 a.m. in the driving rain; or being a middle-aged guy with a troubled past, a dim future and a slim chance at redemption that will come only if you confront the shadowy, dangerous powers that murdered your career.
That, roughly, is the hero’s situation in Junji Sakamoto’s “Yukizuri no Machi (Strangers in the City).” Based on an eponymous 1992 mystery novel by Tatsuo Shimizu, the story may have a whodunit arc, but the focus is on the dorodoro journey of the hero, Hatano (Toru Nakamura), a former high-school teacher who made the mistake of falling for, marrying and later divorcing one of his students — and has been paying the price for the past 12 years.
At this point, any potential Hollywood remaker is turning the page, since many in the remaker’s target audience will see Hatano as a predatory pedophile, undeserving of sympathy — though some might call his case borderline.
Sakamoto tackled the subject of pedophilia more directly in his 2008 film “Yami no Kodomotachi (Children of the Dark),” which depicted child prostitution in Thailand. While applauding Sakamoto’s intention to expose a social evil, I had doubts about his approach, particularly the graphic (if carefully staged) sex scenes in a brothel. Unsurprisingly, the film received a chilly reception on the international festival circuit, while getting only limited release in Japan.
“Strangers” is a commercial film, not a no-punches-pulled indie indictment, so Sakamoto shows no flashbacks of Hatano and the student, Masako (Manami Konishi), in anything resembling a compromising situation. At the same time, he does regard Hatano as a sympathetic, if troubled, figure. (He is not the first: “Koko Kyoshi (High School Teacher),” a hit 1993 film based on a TV drama, about an affair between a high-school PE teacher and a female student, explored the same territory more explicitly.)
Hatano is working as a juku (cram school) teacher in the countryside when he learns that a former student, Yukari (Nao Minamisawa), has run away to Tokyo. For reasons not immediately clear, he goes looking for her, returning to the city for the first time in a dozen years. He soon arrives at the luxury apartent in Azabu where she once lived — but finds himself tailed and then chased by men employed by a foppish, wily contruction company exec, Nakagome (Yosuke Kubozuka).
Hatano then ventures to a fancy supper club where Yukari was seen. There he unpleasantly encounters Ikebe (Renji Ishibashi), the pompous, arrogant school-board member, and president of the construction company, who had had Hatano fired, but Yukari is nowhere to be found.
As Hatano gathers more information from various sources, including former colleagues (Eriko Sato, Tetta Sugimoto) and Yukari’s former roommate (Mitsuki Tanimura), he realizes that this is more than just a case of a girl gone missing, that Ikebe and his minions are trying to cover something up — but what? Then, inevitably, he reunites with Masako, at the classy bar in Roppongi she has taken over from her mother (Kyoko Enami).
Once his wife, Masako is now involved with a new man (Arata), but Hatano’s return stirs up old feelings of love, as well as pain. How can she go back to him? How can she not?
Nakamura, who has played dozens of tough-guy roles (his appearance in “Strangers” is his 50th in a 25-year career), is cast against type as Hatano, a disgraced outsider with nothing going for him but his perisistence, whose motives are not clear even to himself. Nakamura exposes Hatano’s weaknesses without making him look contemptible — or later overcompensating with macho bravado. In fact, for a hero in a hard-boiled mystery, Hatano is a surprisingly reluctant warrior, though he can use his fists when called upon.
Meanwhile, Konishi plays Masako as a wised up, wary adult who is as angry at Hatano as she is, at her inner-teenager core, still in love with him. She expresses these contradications with an anguished force beyond anything her co-star can equal, though his character is suffering less from a conflicted heart than a bad conscience.
Sakamoto and his scriptwriter, Shoichi Maruyama, can’t quite decide what the film is about, however. The rekindling of a taboo love? The redemption of a sinned-against sinner? Instead of answering these questions in fresh, convincing ways, they complicate them, finally settling on the usual hard-boiled solution: One tough guy bashing another into submission. What had promised to be a knotty relationship drama ends up resembling a knock-down-drag-out boxing movie — and Sakamoto has made some good ones, including his justly praised 1989, debut “Dotsuitarunen” (“Knockout”).
While not a better film, “Strangers” is certainly more dorodoro. Whether Hatano succeeds or fails in his quest, I won’t say — but by the end he could do with a bath and his white shirt, which he’s worn throughout, badly needs dry cleaning. And Sakamoto needs a new, less icky, story line.