Ryuichi Hiroki has become the go-to director for romantic dramas that quality-wise are a cut above the local formula weepers whose starred-crossed lovers are parted by a slow, beautiful death (though Hiroki’s couples are hardly immune to life’s vicissitudes). At the same time, his films in this genre are pitched at a bigger audience than the typical furrow-browed indie, including fans of the pop/literary novel on which they are inevitably based.
As can be seen in “Kiiroi Zo (Yellow Elephant),” a drama about a just-married couple self-exiled to the countryside, Hiroki delivers the sentiment these fans demand, drained of the genre’s rampant sentimentality. Instead of banging away with tearjerking scenes, TV-drama style, he keeps his camera gently swaying at a discreet remove, like a sensitive, watchful, observer. Also, his soundtrack music, supplied this time by composer/musician Yoshihide Otomo, unobtrusively underscores the on-screen emotions, in contrast to the usual treacly J-pop ballads.
Finally, and to his lead actresses most importantly, Hiroki brings out their best both visually and dramatically, though not with standard-issue glamor shots and showy acting. In the case of Aoi Miyazaki, playing the unworldly wife of a struggling novelist (Osamu Mukai), Hiroki focuses not on the 1,000-watt smile that made her famous but, in one lingering closeup in softly glowing light, a combination of angelic purity and womanly fire that makes her seem at once vulnerable and formidable.
Based on Kanako Nishi’s novel, the story begins as a twee fantasy. Aiko Tsumari (Miyazaki) and Ayumu Muko (Mukai) call each other Tsuma (wife) and Muko (husband) and live in a cozy old house in the boonies but, as we gradually realize, are barely acquainted with each other. Muko proposed to Tsuma not long after saying hello, and she, confronted with this young shining prince straight from a girls’ manga (Hiroki’s mood lighting again), answered yes.
While he taps away at his magnum opus and journal and works part-time at a nearby nursing home, she potters about talking to plants and animals like a later-day Dr. Dolittle. Tsuma and Muko are also friendly with the charmingly eccentric old guy who lives next door (Akira Emoto) and his sweetly senile wife (Chieko Matsubara), as well as a cute neighbor boy (Tatsuomi Hamada) and a pig-tailed girl (Himeka Asami) who is stubbornly pursuing him.
Tsuma, we learn, was a sickly, lonely girl who loved to draw, but had an irrational fear of the full moon and a knack for communicating with nonhuman living things. That is, she is a bit barmy, though in the film’s slightly surreal world, her oddities fit right in.
Where, you might ask, is the story? It begins with the arrival of a letter for Muko from the husband (Lily Franky) of a former lover (Tamaki Ogawa). Its message: Give me back my wife. But he tells Tsuma nothing — and the gap between them grows. She can communicate freely with the tree in the garden and the goat in the yard, but not her own husband.
So there is meaning, as well as substance, to a film that begins as a sort of female-targeted fairy tale about a troubled girl finding herself in a rural paradise with a gorgeous, artistic guy. But the healthy, scrumptious-looking evening meals that Tsuma so lovingly prepares without fail — and Hiroki dutifully photographs, one by one — begin to look bitterly ironic, as the couple’s relationship becomes brittle and finally reaches breaking point.
There is also a deeper reason for the subplots about the other couples, old and young, beyond the need to populate the background with adorable characters. Even Muko’s novel has a role to play other than giving him a cool occupation.
But as well-crafted and adult as the film turns out to be, it lacks the emotional realism and erotic charge of Hiroki’s best work, including his 2003 “Vibrator,” though that masterpiece also featured a neurotic, isolated heroine on the edge of a breakdown and a new beginning; who heard voices in her head — not a talking dog.