Yoshihiro Nakamura is an odd man out among contemporary Japanese filmmakers. All of his films as a director, including his 2009 international breakthrough “Fisshu Sutori (Fish Story),” are intended first and foremost as entertainment, not art. At the same time, they are often philosophical investigations into the nature of reality, seemingly inspired by geneticist JBS Haldane’s observation that “The universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”
This combination is not common in an industry whose commercial films are mostly either humanistic dramas, manga-esque fantasies or some combination of the two. At the same time, Nakamura is less a sui generis creator than an adaptor of others’ work, especially the fiction of Kotaro Isaka, which has inspired four of his best films.
The latest, “Potechi (Chips),” is taken from Isaka’s story collection, which is also named “Fisshu Sutori (Fish Story),” and shares the former film’s message that small, seemingly random acts can have large, meaningful consequences. This may sound trite — “for want of a nail” and all the rest of it — but in Nakamura’s telling it takes on a funny, fresh significance.
In contrast to “Fish Story,” a sprawling, ambitious film that ends with a thrilling rush as the various plot threads tie brilliantly together, “Chips” is smaller in scope and less showy in effect, but its climactic epiphany left me in tears. I won’t spoil it by saying why, just that this crazy world made more sense as the credits rolled.
The hero is one Tadashi Imamura (Gaku Hamada), a nervous thief who has an advisor in the enigmatic, worldly wise Kurosawa (Nao Omori) and a master in a portly, easily flustered fellow Imamura calls his “CEO” (Nakamura in a cameo). Imamura’s level-headed girlfriend, Wakaba (Fumino Kimura), dutifully accompanies him on his jobs, but can’t understand his obsession with a baseball player, Ozaki, who is from Imamura’s hometown of Sendai and rides the bench of the local pro team. Baseball, in fact, baffles her in general. “A home run is just a ball hit far, right?” she asks him at one point. “What’s the big deal?”
The plot begins rolling when Imamura breaks into Ozaki’s apartment — and hears a desperate woman on the answering machine saying she needs the player’s help with a stalker. Imamura impulsively decides to go to her rescue, setting into motion an odd chain of events that clarifies his relationship to Ozaki — though it’s finally up to him make it mean something beyond mere chance.
What do the titular potato chips have to do with it? When Imamura mistakenly brings Wakaba salty chips instead of the consomme-flavored ones she had requested, she eats them anyway and proclaims them delicious. Imamura is so moved he cries, much to her surprise. But this minor incident holds an important key to Imamura’s existential dilemma. He believes himself, we see, to be a “wrong package,” beginning with his birth. Wakaba’s small act of forgiveness gives him hope that the wrong can become right.
Nearly everyone in the main cast, including Eri Ishida as Imamura’s blithely distant mother, ironically underplays in even the more extreme situations, giving them a comic veneer of normality. The big exception is Nakamura regular Hamada, whose Imamura is serious about everything — which makes him a rather funny thief.
As is usual with Nakamura, certain characters are not what they seem and their actions do not always make rational sense, but by the end we see that there was a plan, quite an ingenious one, all along.
Unlike his previous films based on Isaka’s fiction, however, “Chips” plays like a tightly written short story, with a 68-minute running time and no narrative fat whatsoever. Call it minor if you will, but it’s also sweet and sure, like the stroke of a hitter who knows, from the crack of his bat, that the ball is out of the park.