Dads, in Japan and elsewhere, never quite believe that their daughters are grown up and gone, do they? On a corner of their desk or in a corner of their mind is a picture of their princess at the school play or the piano recital or just making a goofy 8-year-old face. Yes, there are sternly realistic exceptions — and this father of a grown-up daughter, who is still making up lame-brained bedtime stories for her in his memory, feels sorry for them.
One man after my own sentimental heart is Amamoto (Mitsuru Hirata), the hero of Hiroshi Nishio’s “Soul Flower Train.” A recently retired town hall bureaucrat, Amamoto leaves his home island by ferry to visit his long-lost daughter, now supposedly attending college in Osaka. All he has to ID the daughter, Yuki (Sayoko), is a blurry photo of her as a girl, wearing her ballet tutu and grinning up at Daddy’s camera.
This may sound like the beginning of a bumpkin-in-the-big-city comedy, an impression strengthened by the snappy, funny trailer, propelled by Shonen Knife’s infectiously upbeat theme song. But Nishio, an Osaka native whose last feature was the 2003 horror “National Anthem,” has filmed a more serious, if warmhearted and slightly surreal, take on his source material, a 2008 manga by Robin Nishi. Imagine Yasujiro Ozu’s classic 1949 father-and-daughter drama “Banshun (Late Spring)” remade as feel-good erotically spiced entertainment.
On the boat, Amamoto makes the dubious acquaintance of a gangster type who plies him with drinks and tells him about the dangers of the city. Amamoto trustingly takes his new companion’s talk to heart, not noticing the hand slipping inside his coat to extract his wallet. Coming rather improbably to his rescue is Akane (Marin), a blonde-haired cutie with a knack for sleight-of-hand, who returns Amamoto’s wallet to him soon after he leaves the ship — and offers to take him on a tour of Osaka. Having time to kill, Amamoto accepts and Akane escorts him to a video-game arcade, where he wins a big stuffed animal that is promptly stolen, and to a strip show, where he sees one of the performers demonstrate a highly unusual talent for calligraphy.
As the night deepens and his energy level drops, Amamoto finally meets his daughter Yuki, who is glad to see him but not thrilled to find him with Akane, who soon takes her leave. What, we wonder, was that long, strange buildup about?
We soon get hints, at first subtle and then broad, that Yuki is not what she seems. (Spoiler alert.) Yuki in fact works at the club where Dad had sat gap-mouthed with amazement — and not as a ticket-taker either.
If the story had hinged only on the simple question of whether Amamoto accepts his daughter’s offbeat job, it would have made for a 30-minute short. But Nishio and co-scriptwriter Miyuki Uehara not only flesh out Akane as a character but also give her a parallel story with her own father issues, as well as a troubled relationship with a slacker guy who operates the club’s light show — and is not exactly promising husband material.
This story feels dragged-in at first, but it also serves purposes beyond being time-filler, including the important one of describing the club’s milieu and humanizing its denizens, who might otherwise have come off as mere backdrop to the main story.
Both Marin as Akane and Sayoko as Yuki seem to come directly from that milieu, despite resumes that include the usual stage plays, TV commercials and agency affiliations. Jaded with men (or simply not interested in them to begin with), Yuki and the club’s other strippers nonetheless take a kind of pride in their trade, whose tricks look like magic to the club’s besotted if (by Western standards) restrained clientele. At the same time, they are completely aware of its disreputable nature, by the standards of the straight world. That is, it’s not something they want to write home about.
Also, Nishio gives us a ground-level, insider’s tour of his vital, unruly city that views everything from the cuisine to the crime with a cheeky humor and winking tolerance that is typically Osaka.
True, in real life, the lamb-like Amamoto may well have been totally fleeced, or worse. And strip clubs, for all their “artistry,” have a sleazy, exploitative side that is only hinted at in the film.
But veteran Hirata is tear-pumpingly effective as a simple-hearted dad who loves his daughter beyond all reason, despite her misrepresentations. Does “Soul Flower Train” transport that love into the borderlands of the corny and soppy? Perhaps, but if you’ve still got ancient snaps of your little darling crumbling apart in your wallet, guy, you’ve probably made that trip yourself.
Fun fact: Robin Nishi is best known for “Mind Game,” a manga about a murdered man’s return for a second chance at life that Studio 4°C made into an award-winning 2004 anime directed by Masaaki Yuasa.