It’s hardly surprising that gaman (“perseverance”) is the watchword of many a local movie. Just as their heroes gut through to glory in film after film, real-life Japanese endure everything from deadly natural disasters to boring meetings, telling each other to ganbaro (“keep trying”). How admirable, this national stoicism!
But sometimes the smartest, if toughest, thing to do is quit. You know that you are never going to be a major league slugger or concert pianist, even after years of do-or-die effort. You accept being a loser because the alternative is more wasted time, more painful confirmation of your own mediocrity.
This sort of turning point, as common in real life as death or taxes, is understandably seldom the theme of commercial films, since the audience is paying for hope, however distant, not unpleasant truth. So Keisuke Yoshida’s “Bashauma-san to Bigmouth (The Workhorse and the Bigmouth),” which makes quietly powerful drama out its heroine’s floundering career (or rather non-career) as a scriptwriter, is an outlier.
The story, which Yoshida wrote himself, is based on his own decadelong struggle to become a director, as well as his own realization that he was, as he says in a program interview, “not a genius, as I had believed myself to be, but an ordinary person.”
The goofy title gave me the impression I was in for a quirky comedy, especially since that is what Yoshida supplied so amusingly in his 2008 “Jun Kissa Isobe (Cafe Isobe).” Instead the film is naturalistic to a fault, as though Yoshida had secretly filmed an actual scriptwriting class and transformed the results into his fictional story with minimal (at times too minimal) changes.
Even so, he skillfully, if unobtrusively, shapes his material to his own ends. He makes us understand and like his two principals, even when they are at their most pathetic or obnoxious.
The bashauma (workhorse) of the title is Michiyo Mabuchi (Kumiko Aso), a 34-year-old aspiring scriptwriter who has been plugging away at her craft since her school days, but has never sold anything. Then Kiyoko (Maho Yamada), a close friend and fellow scribbler, suggests they try a scriptwriting course for adults. In class, they encounter Yoshimi Tendo (Shota Yasuda), a 26-year-old with reddish hair and a know-it-all attitude, who confidently proclaims his own talent, though he has yet to write a line. He is, of course, the title’s “big mouth.”
Michiyo cordially dislikes this upstart and when, out of the blue, he proposes that they date so he can gather material for his first masterpiece, she contemptuously brushes him off.
In a typical romcom, this would be the start of a bumpy but finally beautiful relationship. Michiyo, however, means what she says: This workaholic scripter not only keeps men at arm’s length, but slacks off at her part-time job at a ticket agency and neglects her sweet mom (Yoneko Matsukane) and dad (Jun Inoue) in the countryside, all in single-minded pursuit of her goal.
She is not too proud to grasp at straws, though, as when a casual remark by a director visiting the class sends her pleading to a former boyfriend and failed actor (Yoshinori Okada) for a volunteer gig at an old-folks’ home where he works. Soon after, she starts writing a script based on her own awkward attempts to empathize with her charges, but with a much younger woman as the heroine.
So far, so self-delusive — and nothing improves quickly or obviously for these two, which may try the patience of those used to the faster, more predictable rhythms of local zero-to-hero films, with their false dawn or two before the inevitable triumph. And yet every encounter between this oil-and-water pair, as well as their wounding brushes with the harsh realities of their trade, works changes on their inner chemistry, changes that made me tear up as the credits rolled — and not because Mendelssohn’s “Wedding March” was playing over them.
Aso has made a career of playing comically offbeat characters and Michiyo, with her nerdy glasses and slightly pixilated earnestness, is yet another. But she is also a complexly constructed, entirely believable woman, not a cartoon.
As Tendo, pop star Yasuda (Kanjani8) seems to be reprising his own brash, down-to-earth self. Even so, he wisely plays off the more experienced Aso instead of trying to noisily upstage her.
None of this means “The Workhorse and the Bigmouth” will be a hit. The odds, in fact, are quite against it. But this onetime Little Leaguer who never learned to hit the curve ball can always hope.
Fun fact: Director Keisuke Yoshida’s first film, “Nama Natsu (Raw Summer),” won the Grand Prize of the Fantastic Off-Theatre Competition at the 2006 Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival.