What is your worst nightmare? In this Internet age, public shaming by misdirected tweet or surreptitious smartphone snap has come to rank high. Of course, the sex video that just happens to go viral has propelled more than one “victim” to stardom (or at least a reality-show version of it), but far more reputations have been tarnished by Web notoriety, however temporary or local.
Based on Misumi Kubo’s award-winning novel, Yuki Tanada’s “Fugainai Boku wa Sora wo Mita (The Cowards Who Looked to the Sky)” examines the fallout from one such shaming, but for all the nowness of its topic, the film is not exploitative. Instead, Tanada has portrayed her teenage hero and his housewife lover as real-life combinations of good and bad, strong and weak, admirable and contemptible.
Most of all, they are ordinary people who, whatever happens, get up the next morning and live through the day (though some spend it with the blanket over their head). Tanada’s theme, in fact, is less the depths to which we humans can fall than our amazing tenacity. We just keep coming, disaster after disaster, generation after generation.
The hero, Takumi (Kento Nagayama), is the only child of a spunky midwife (Mieko Harada) who runs her own clinic together with one no-nonsense assistant, while his improvident father is no longer around. That is, he has been close to the process of birth, in all its pain and glory, since boyhood, as well as being educated by strong women to reject the typical adolescent male illusions about the opposite sex.
At the same time, Takumi is an unusually good-looking guy with the usual adolescent male sex drive. When he meets a vivacious if insecure housewife (Tomoko Tabata) decked out as a cute cartoon heroine at a sort of manga and anime flea market, it doesn’t take much for the sparks to fly. And keep flying, even when the housewife, nicknamed Anzu, insists on the proper script and cosplay gear for their sexual encounters.
Which may sound like the makings of a pinku (soft-core porn) comedy, but Tanada films the bed scenes with a hot frankness and intimate tenderness that lifts them above the mechanical genre norm. The dry humor that informed her earlier work, including her 2008 road movie “Hyakuman-en to Nigamushi Onna (One Million Yen Girl),” surfaces only occasionally, though she observes her characters from a distance, if with more sympathy than irony.
Complications quickly multiply. A pretty classmate (Miharu Tanaka) melts Takumi’s heart with a brave little declaration of love, causing him to dump the middle-aged (by his standards) Anzu. Adding to Anzu’s woes, her terror of a mother-in-law (Ginpuncho) badgers her and her mama’s-boy of a husband (Takashi Yamanaka) to produce a grandchild with fertility treatments, while unfairly blaming Anzu (whom she calls by her real name, Satomi) for the couple’s lack of reproductive success.
Worst of all, a secretly filmed video of Takumi and Anzu in bed ends up online. When it goes viral, all hell breaks loose.
Tanada and scriptwriter Kosuke Mukai have somewhat confusingly structured the film like a three-part omnibus with intersecting, nonlinear storylines. Incidents presented from Takumi’s viewpoint are later rewound to show the same scenes from Anzu’s perspective. Then, the focus abruptly shifts to Fukuda (Masataka Kubota), Takumi’s best pal, who lives a grim existence with his senile grandmother in a rundown danchi (housing development), while fending off bill collectors dunning his slatternly, mostly absent mother.
With his own bank account melting away, Fukuda works part-time as a convenience-store clerk and newspaper-delivery boy and thinks of quitting school. But what does his sad tale have to do with the putative main story?
Everything, as it turns out, though Tanada goes her own sweet, long, meandering way in showing us why. Fukuda’s struggle, we see, not only links with Takumi’s and Anzu’s plot-wise, but also illustrates the film’s larger themes. Though he flirts with failure and even petty crime, Fukuda has the same strong survival instincts as Takumi and Anzu, as well as the same hard-to-kill capacity for hope.
Cynics may argue that the human capacity for destruction is larger. Tanada’s reply is scenes of women giving birth in the clinic, at times in excruciating pain and with worrisome complications. Then the baby arrives and the joyful expressions of everyone in the room say it all: We begin as little miracles deserving life — and a chance.