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‘Seesaw’

A harrowing, heartfelt look at the pitfalls of love and loss

by Mark Schilling

Many Japanese indie films never achieve the grail of a theatrical release, and some arrive on theater screens here only after a long journey on the festival circuit. Seeing the latter on a distributor’s lineup years after shooting wrapped, I feel like saying otsukare-sama (“job well done”) to the filmmaker — though the film itself may not be that good.

Fortunately, that’s not the case with “Seesaw,” a sensitive, haunting relationship drama that premiered at the 2010 Skip City International D-Cinema Festival, where actor-turned-director Keihiro Kanyama won the Skip City Award given to the most promising young Japanese filmmaker. “Seesaw” later screened at festivals in Hawaii, Vienna, Osaka and elsewhere and will finally open, with English subtitles, at Human Trust Cinema Shibuya in Tokyo on June 30.

The film seems to come directly from the experience of Kanyama, who also scripted, produced and stars as the heroine’s failed-actor boyfriend. But for all its naturalistic surface, such as the overlapping dialogue that sounds less scripted than recorded, this 70-minute film is tightly constructed, with even its mundane moments containing a pointed revelation of character or a poignant foreshadowing of future events. When Kanyama leaves out important narrative information, which some indie filmmakers do to be fashionably obscure (while thumbing their nose at the audience), the elision has a clear purpose and leaves a lasting resonance.

His theme is loss, which is signaled from the first scene, when Makoto (Maki Murakami), a young teacher of Japanese, receives a late-night phone call from a hospital. From her tone and expression, we know it’s something serious, though her words alone don’t tell us why. The scene then flashes back to a noisy, lively engagement party for Makoto’s friend Keiko (one-named actress Sora) and her actor fiancé Takumi (Keigo Oka). Makoto’s live-in boyfriend, Shinji (Kanyama), is also present and, it soon becomes apparent, envious of his buddy Takumi, who is succeeding at the profession Shinji abandoned and getting married in the bargain. Teased by Takumi and the others, an awkward Shinji proposes to Makoto — via a video camera, with the footage to be shown later at the wedding reception.

The next day, reality returns with a vengeance, but Shinji still has marriage on his mind. Makoto isn’t so sure, however. What’s the difference, she wants to know, between marriage and the way they are living now?

Soon after, she throws up in the sink — that classic movie code for pregnancy. Instead of finding out for sure and telling Shinji, she carries on, uneasily wavering between rejection and acceptance of her new condition.

Rather than spell out the reasons for Makoto’s hesitation, the film shows us her various sides — the conscientious but slightly bored teacher, the enthusiastic but not always confident lover, and the childishly acting but deeply feeling woman. In her first starring role, model-turned-actress Murakami prove herself a well-cast natural, whose mobile face could no more lie than fly.

Shinji is similarly on the cusp between adolescence and adulthood, but more willing than Makoto to play his expected social role. At the same time, he is boyishly impulsive, bringing home an abandoned dog to the annoyance of Makoto, who doesn’t need the distraction with a (still-secret) baby on the way.

But for all their problems, revealed and hidden, Makoto and Shinji are obviously in synch with each other, sexually and otherwise. Whether they can live happily ever after is another question.

This may make “Seesaw” sound like many another Japanese romantic drama, but to explain why it is not, I would have to give too much away. There is, however, not a single weepy bedside scene. Instead the film reminds us, with a nuanced directness, how the perplexing questions of life can suddenly become devastatingly clear — and how final a loss can feel. The way a park seesaw, designed to give uncomplicated joy, can one day look like the saddest object on the planet.