In a recent interview, Steven Soderbergh complained that critics are “too easily fooled.” “Their reading of filmmaking is too superficial,” he added. While I am as much a fan of deep insight as the next guy, I am also perfectly happy to be fooled. That is, if a director manages to salvage his pig of a film with the lipstick of creative editing, I don’t need, or particularly want, to know how he did it. The evidence on the screen is all that counts.
But sometimes, as in the case of Masahide Ichii’s romantic drama “Hakoiri Musuko no Koi (Blindly in Love),” I am all too aware of a film’s back story. Not to go into the unpleasant details, but the film’s original scriptwriter objected to certain changes made by Ichii with the approval of the producers and, failing to get satisfaction, asked that his name be removed from the credits.
This sort of thing often happens in the movie business, if not so often in Japan — and doesn’t necessarily mean the film will be a botch. So I saw this story of a nerdy City Hall bureaucrat’s first encounter with love with what I hoped was an open mind — and found that both the scriptwriter and Ichii had a point. The film does have a third-act problem, but the solution is forced and silly. It’s as if the first producer of “Romeo and Juliet” asked its author to rewrite the play to end with a happy wedding instead of an elegy to tragic love. Who would blame William Shakespeare for walking off in a huff — or signing himself “Francis Bacon”?
The hero is that by-now familiar figure in Japanese films: the lonely virgin guy who is 35 going on 12. Kentaro Amanoshizu (Gen Hoshino) is not only still living in the boyhood room he shares with his pet frog (his only friend), but he doesn’t drink, smoke or otherwise have the habits or interests of the typical Japanese adult male. Instead, he is compulsively neat, robotically dutiful and completely dateless.
Worried that Kentaro will never produce an heir to carry on the family line, his father (Sei Hiraizumi) and mother (Ryoko Moriyama) attend a gathering of similarly marriage-minded parents to exchange resumes of their offspring and set up omiai (formal marriage interviews). The only ones showing a flicker of interest in Kentaro, however, are a haughty elite salaryman, Akita Imai (Ren Osugi), and his gorgeous if nervous wife (Hitomi Kuroki), but the Amanoshizus fail to close the deal.
Then, through the intervention of the movie gods, Kentaro not only meets the Imais’ beautiful, well-bred daughter Naoko (Kaho) but begins to date her with her mother’s support, if without her father’s knowledge. How does this miracle occur? Naoko is blind, which not only makes her damaged goods on the marriage market (thus her parents’ consent to an omiai with the ambitionless, prospectless Kentaro) but also oblivious to what a normally sighted woman would see at first glance: Kentaro’s total nerdiness, from his goofy black-framed glasses to his awkwardly stiff manner. Instead she hears a guy who may be excruciatingly polite but is also considerate, kind and, in his own strange way, funny (he does a great frog imitation).
Ichii, whose previous films “Hayabusa (Dog Days Dream)” and “Mubobi (Naked of Defenses)” were prize winners at the Pia Film Festival, kids the clueless Kentaro and his fretting parents, but he doesn’t turn them into clowns. Instead, more than most makers of Japanese films about socially inept guys, he treats Kentaro’s dilemma of wanting to grow up, but not knowing how, seriously and sympathetically. And when his hero finally finds love in the sweetly naive person of Naoko, Ichii films their budding relationship, including its initial sexual fumblings, with a supportive smile rather than a mocking leer.
This coming-together of two nice, sheltered people begins to feel too easy, however. Where is the drama? The film obligingly supplies it, as the tone abruptly changes from gentle-spirited dramady to strident formula melodrama (with Naoko’s father all but shouting, “Unhand my daughter, you cad!”) and feel-good farce.
This shift may work at the box office, since the young audience, especially, is used to such sudden mood swings from the TV dramas that equate frantic with funny and mugging with acting. But it also kills off the tender and, yes, sexy flowering of the film’s first hour.
Is that a superficial reading of “Blindly in Love”? Maybe I missed the subtle metaphor of a grown man crawling up the side of a house like a frog on terrarium glass? But, fool that I am, I laughed anyway.
Fun fact: Star Gen Hoshino has a parallel career as the frontman in the band Sakerock and as a solo singer. In May his third album “Stranger” reached No. 2 on the Oricon chart.