At Hollywood pitch meetings, the pitchers (presenters) typically sell their movie ideas with the “meets” technique, as in, “It’s a monster animation for the whole family: ‘Bambi’ meets ‘Godzilla.’ ”
Takahisa Zeze’s new melodrama, “Antoki no Inochi (Life Back Then),” might be described as 2009’s “Yomei 1-kagetsu no Hanayome (April Bride)” meets 2010’s “Raiou (The Lightening Tree).” “Life Back Then” features “The Lightening Tree” star Masaki Okada as a shy, stuttering, fiercely passionate youth and “April Bride” star Nana Eikura as a girl with a kind but wounded heart whom Okada’s character befriends and comes to love.
Also, Zeze emerged from the same pinku eiga (softcore porn) background as his senpai (senior) Ryuichi Hiroki, director of both “April” and “Lightning.” And all three films were produced by the TBS network, as a sort of star-crossed love trilogy.
Whatever their formulaic qualities, “April Bride” and “The Lightning Tree” echo Hiroki’s earlier, better indie films about women in the throes of self-discovery. By contrast, “Life Back Then” feels more like a work for hire, though Zeze incorporates personal stylistic signatures, such as a handheld camera that hovers over the action like a bee and, at the crucial moment, zooms in for the sting.
Zeze does a generally workmanlike job with the material, based on Masashi Sada’s eponymous novel, transitioning smoothly between two parallel story lines: one set in the hero’s high school days, the other at the eventful start of his adult life.
But those who like Zeze’s edgy, violent, no-compromise indie films, including his 4½-hour 2010 epic, “Hebunzu Sutori (Heaven’s Story),” may find “Life Back Then” a cash-for-soul sellout. For me, it’s the rare TV network film that complexifies the characters’ emotions instead of manufacturing them according to formula.
Okada is Kyohei Nagashima, a young man with a severe speech impediment who has just begun a job cleaning the residences of the newly dead. (This once-unknown line of work has appeared in enough films now for a festival section.) Among his new colleagues is Yuki Kubota (Eikura), an attractive young woman who looks out of place packing away the belongings of dead people — until we see that she takes a tender interest in these objects, even snapping photos for remembrance.
Both Kyohei and Yuki, however, carry scars from deep, unhealed wounds in their pasts.
As a high school student, Kyohei not only saw a classmate driven to suicide by bullying, but became a victim of the bully’s lies himself, while people he thought he could trust looked on in silence despite knowing the truth. This avalanche of injustices finally drove him over the edge.
As for Yuki, enough to say the certain traumatic incidents have left her suspicious of men — Kyohei included.
The seeming solution for both is the healing power of truth and love, but the situation is not quite so simple. The truth, Kyohei learns in the course of his work, can wound, while love, he discovers, can come with the painful corollary of loss.
Both Okada and Eikura are talented actors whose characters make a good match not only physically (pretty for pretty and tall for tall) but emotionally, being both decent types with hints of a darker side. Also, Okada portrays Kyohei’s disability with sensitivity and individuality, instead of falling back on the usual actor’s tricks.
But in contrast to the emotional wallop delivered by the climax of 2008’s Oscar-winning “Okuribito (Departures),” another film set in the death business, “Life Back Then” introduces a blatantly tearjerking plot device in its third act that all but ruins the film.
Zeze, I hope, would have written it out if this well-acted but fatally compromised movie had been truly his, but he’s neither completely in control nor in his element. And that’s a crying shame.