Omnibus films must have a unifying theme, however loose or gimmicky; otherwise, they’re a collection of shorts. And while there’s nothing wrong with shorts as such, when packaged as a feature film, they are, as all distributors know, box-office suicide.
“Kamifusen” (“Paper Balloon”), an omnibus distributed by Tokyo University of the Arts and directed by four of its students, is based on the work of Kunio Kishida (1890-1954), a dramatist and author who studied in France in the 1920s and founded the Bungei-za theater troupe in 1937 after returning to Japan.
The four directors of “Kamifusen” don’t entirely avoid staginess — or staleness for that matter — in filming Kishida’s eight-decade-old stories. But they also show why Kishida’s work, with its focus on relationships between the sexes in all their power and difficulty, passion and fragility, still matters.
In its first segment, “Ano Hoshi wa Itsu Arawareruka” (“When Will That Star Appear”), Satoru Hirohara tells a typical seishun eiga (“youth film”) story. Serious-minded Enoha (Suzuka Ohgo) is just good friends with her smart, boyishly playful classmate Osumi (Ryu Morioka), but love between the pair is budding, if not yet in bloom.
Her stern translator father (Ken Mitsuishi), however, takes a dim view of Osumi, despite the boy’s attempts to butter him up, warning Enoha that he is after her body. Meanwhile, her more easygoing mother (Yasuko Tomita) tells her that starred-crossed love is the hardest, though how this applies to Enoha and Osumi isn’t yet clear. Enoha takes this advice to heart, though, and on the night of Tanabata — the traditional festival for lovers — tells Osumi she wants to talk.
Set on Enoshima Island, a summer resort of Tokyoites for generations, the film feels almost quaintly not-of-the-moment, as when the father gets in a lather about Enoha lending Osumi her lip gloss. But the two leads are attractively natural with each other and their scenes have the sweet timelessness of young love.
Far artier, in a magazine-cover way, is Kohei Sanada’s “Inochi wo Moteasobu Otoko Futari” (“Two Guys Who Play With Life”). A young teacher (Kenji Mizuhashi) encounters Yo (Hoshi Ishida), a former student, at a temple and learns they have both been called there by Haruka (Aimi Satsukawa), a pretty, flirtatious girl who was Yo’s classmate.
Seeing Haruka’s joy at her reunion with Yo, the teacher starts to leave, but is persuaded by Haruka to go with her and Yo to the school roof, where they enjoy a raucous after-hours party until Haruka casually steps off it into eternity.
Realizing he has committed a sackable offense in partying with his previous charges on the premises, the teacher panics. Is the “corpse” floating in the school pool still alive?
Instead of giving this odd setup a gloss of realism, Sanada creates stylized compositions, such as the three principals lying side by side across railroad tracks, evenly spaced and similarly posed, intended to impress with their cool. The effect, instead, is to highlight the brittle artificiality of the story’s conceit.
Taking a more melodramatic approach is Ryo Yoshikawa’s “Himitsu no Daisho” (“Secret Compensation”). Pretty, stone-faced Miwa (Mai Takahashi) is a house cleaner for a rich middle-aged couple and their dissolute adult son, Mamoru (Tsuyoshi Hayashi). The flashy, voluble wife, who has taken a liking to Miwa, gives her an expensive evening dress and necklace. Soon after, Miwa repays her by stealing the contents of her jewelry box and saying she is quitting the job, effective immediately.
The wife suspects Miwa of hanky-panky with either her husband or Mamoru, but Miwa disdains to reply. This, we feel, is not going to end happily — for the wife.
A nightclub confrontation scene featuring the four principals, with extras who seem to have been recruited from a ballroom dancing circle, aims for high, sexually charged drama a la Douglas Sirk, but descends to the overripe and absurd.
The last and most accomplished segment is Shoichi Akino’s “Kamifusen,” which begins with a husband (Toru Nakamura) and wife (Tamaki Ogawa) spending another boring Sunday together at home. The wife complains, the husband retorts and they start to bicker. But then, at the wife’s inspired suggestion, they begin imagining their ideal Sunday. They act it out — a trip to Kamakura — like two children playing a game. How romantic! But then the husband brings them back down to earth with a thud.
Nakamura, known for his many action roles, and indie-film veteran Ogawa are in perfect sync, giving the stagy dialogue a sexual and emotional charge that make this two-hander more than an exercise in style. Also, unlike other segments that end abruptly, “Kamifusen” builds to a climax that quietly inspires. It’s the best reason to see a film that, whatever its novice flaws, introduces fresh, promising talents.