The definition of “sublime” goes through a subtle overhaul in Abbas Kiarostami’s latest “Like Someone in Love,” filmed in Tokyo and featuring an all-Japanese cast. To witness the movie is to experience a massive who-would-have-thought-moment. This is Kiarostami we’re talking about: one of the world’s most revered and lauded directors, an iconic figure in Middle Eastern cinema and a hero in his native Iran — this man actually made a movie here. Let’s just pass the champagne bottle and be done with it.
“Like Someone in Love” is the 72-year-old director’s second feature made outside Iran, following the Tuscany-based “Certified Copy” in 2010. As with the last outing, Kiarostami worked almost exclusively with local staff, including cinematographer Katsumi Yanagijima, who regularly teams up with Takeshi Kitano. And after holding a public audition in Tokyo for the role of the main protagonist (a retired 84-year-old professor), Kiarostami gently placed in the center of the story Tadashi Okuno, who says in the production notes that he had been told nothing about the renowned Iranian director. Okuno never received a screenplay, but each day Kiarostami would hand him a series of notes about what to work on for each scene. And each day, the notes were different.
“Like Someone in Love” plays out like a haiku — there seems to be no beginning or end, and each scene offers a multitude of possibilities about how it is unfolding. The film is also a series of observations, sometimes on the formalities of Japanese culture, and others times on a more universal scale about human relationships.
The opening scene is symbolic in this sense: It appears to be set in a crowded jazz bar, but upon further inspection it is actually an escort club, and the girls chatting at the tables are killing time between jobs. Call girl Akiko (Rin Takanashi) is talking to her boyfriend, Noriaki (Ryo Kase), on the phone and lying about her whereabouts; he suspects she’s cheating on him (no kidding) and is so suspicious that he orders her to count the tiles in the bathroom so he can check on the number later.
Akiko is of the gorgeously kawaii variety. The owner (Denden) hurries her into a cab for her next appointment; in the car, it’s not Noriaki she’s thinking about but her grandmother, whom she hasn’t seen in years and who showed up in town earlier that day. Akiko did not pick up her up at the train station, and she now listens to her grandmother’s messages, feeling miserable.
Still, she paints her lips a bright red and preps for work, which turns out to be a rendezvous with retired sociology professor Takashi (Okuno). If Akiko is floored to turn up at his apartment to see an elderly man fussing over a dinner table tastefully laid out for two, she doesn’t show it, and they share a friendly conversation about a painting on the wall. After that, she goes into the bedroom, undresses and passes out on his bed.
It’s pretty clear that Takashi is looking for ways to alleviate a deep and enduring loneliness, though nothing in the way of a back story is given to provide us with clues. His attraction to Akiko is not so much carnal (although she is smoking hot) as it is protective. Takashi is also fascinated by the insanely jealous Noriaki, and when the two meet the older man subjects the younger to a long, silent scrutiny. No doubt Takashi’s sociologist instincts are aroused here, but (perhaps typical to Japanese men) he never seems to question his own sociopsychological motives in hiring an escort girl young enough to be his granddaughter.
Akiko herself remains enigmatic, and Kiarostami seems quite happy to keep it that way. Though Japanese cinema has evolved to a point where the unknowable (and therefore erotic) Japanese woman gets less screen time than her upgraded modern counterpart who talks and functions like a human being, Kiarostami’s Akiko seems stuck in the male-dominated movie aesthetics of the late 20th century. It’s never made clear why she became a call girl, why she ditched her grandmother or if she’s capable of deep feeling at all.
Devoid of personality, Akiko is made up of smiles and demure gestures: When she and Takashi talk about the painting, she goes to the frame and puts her hair up in a way that mirrors the yukata-clad woman depicted on the canvas. She’s fully aware of the effect this will have on Takashi, and countless other men. What she seems to have no inkling of is how to sustain an emotion long enough to achieve some depth, or how to enrich a relationship that otherwise boils down to suspicion and stalking via smartphone.
Is this a Japanese thing? Or does this apply to modern-day mankind in general? Kiarostami doesn’t give any answers: He simply averts his gaze with the slow precision of a noh dancer.