It’s rare indeed that I ever wished a new Japanese film were longer — and I am not the only one. “This could be shorter by (name your number) minutes” is such a cliche of Japanese film reviewing and commentary that I inwardly groan every time I read or hear it; and yet more often than not, it’s right. The two-hour film that crams in as many characters and story lines as possible from its source manga/novel/TV drama has become the industry standard.
But when Makoto Shinozaki’s “Arekara (Since Then)” ended at 63 minutes, a point at which many a film made here is just clearing its throat, I did want more of this sensitive and poetic albeit rather thin drama, about a couple torn apart by forces beyond their control.
“Okaeri” (1995), Shinozaki’s debut feature and still his best, was also about the dissolution of a relationship as the isolated wife descends into madness, as well as being light on conventional exposition, but Shinozaki gave himself more time — 99 minutes to be exact — to tell his story through a close, dispassionate examination of his troubled heroine and her unobservant husband. The climactic scene, shot in one long take, is so devastating because we have, almost without realizing it, come to know the couple so well.
In “Since Then,” which premiered in the Japanese Eyes section of last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, Shoko (Aya Takeko) and her boyfriend Masashi (Yasuhiro Isobe) are living apart from each other — he in Tohoku, she in Tokyo — when the March 11, 2011, earthquake hits. Shoko stays that night at the orthopedic shoe store where she works and tries again and again to contact Masashi but fails, since cellphones are all on the fritz.
Walking streets eerily silent save for the sounds of ambulance sirens and whirring helicopter blades, cleaning an apartment disordered but not severely damaged by the quake, she worries about him, but when a call finally comes it is from his brother, telling her that Masashi has been hospitalized with a nervous breakdown — and asking her not to visit him.
Shoko, of course, wants to go, but her aunt (Maki Izawa), who has been acting as a surrogate mother to her since her real mother’s death, dissuades her with firm, gentle, logic. Meanwhile, her friend and workmate Mami (Mie Ota) remains determined to go through with her planned wedding, disaster or no — and Shoko can’t help contrasting Mami’s happy situation with her own.
Then, like a ghost, Masashi reappears out of nowhere.
Despite filming on a minuscule budget with the cooperation of Eiga Bigakko, the Shibuya film school where he teaches, Shinozaki skillfully evokes the mood of Tokyo in the uneasy days immediately after 3/11, when the veneer of normality — the buildings still standing, the people unharmed — was underlain by a queasy feeling of uncertainty and dread. These scenes are a short master class on how to make do with a minimum of means, including zero crowd scenes and CGI effects. Also, just as he did so masterfully in “Okaeri,” Shinozaki builds toward a big, pull-out-the-stops climax with a spare, pungent naturalism and fine, revealing character shadings, not the usual big, obvious brush strokes.
But as unaffectedly good as Takeko and Isobe are at playing a once-loving couple now on the verge, each drawn to the other while primed to explode, they can’t quite compensate for a story that keeps their characters apart so long and gives us so little of their past, save in Shoko’s bittersweet reminiscence. Unlike “Okaeri,” we don’t see a relationship slowly unraveling, but rather one that, because of Masashi’s illness and absence, already seems to be fading away into memory, even as the couple reunites. This is wistfully sad, but compared with the cathartic wallop delivered by the previous film, not as dramatically strong.
Still, this sort of humanistic story suits Shinozaki, certainly more than the half-silly experiments in pop entertainment he has attempted recently, including 2010′s woman-on-a-tropical-island-with-horny-guys dramady “Tokyo-jima (Tokyo Island).” His new film is, I hope, the start of a kore kara (from here on out) return to form.
Fun fact: Shinozaki was a great fan of 1930s child star Tomio Aoki (aka Tokkan Kozo), and featured him in “Okaeri” after a two-decade hiatus, followed by a starring role in WWII veteran drama “Wasurerarenu Hitobito (Not Forgotten)” in 2000.