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‘Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium)’

Putting off those first steps into the real world

by Mark Schilling

Japanese college students may be the nation’s leisure class, known more for their partying and playing than studying, but their seemingly carefree minds are often clouded by worries about a post-graduation job. Even serious students — yes, they do exist — have to sweat through arduous and frustrating job searches, starting in their junior year or sooner.

And then there is Tamako (Atsuko Maeda), a recent graduate of a college in Tokyo who has returned to her home in Kofu in rural Yamanashi Prefecture. Instead of beating the bushes for work, she spends her days lolling about her father’s sporting-goods store, not bothering to cook or clean or otherwise keep the household wheels turning. That’s Dad’s job, isn’t it?

The unemployed eponymous heroine of Nobuhiro Yamashita’s new film “Moratorium Tamako (Tamako in Moratorium)” is a type increasingly common as full-time jobs become harder to find. Neither a rebel nor a depressive, she feels a vague sense of desperation that, as the seasons inexorably change, slowly grows. What in the world is she supposed to do with herself, other than sleep, snack and read manga?

Those familiar with Yamashita’s earlier films about post-adolescent slackers and misfits, including 2003 films “Baka no Hakobune (No One’s Ark)” and “Realism no Yado (Ramblers)” and last year’s “Kueki Ressha (The Drudgery Train),” may assume “Tamako” will be more of the same. But Yamashita, working from a script by frequent collaborator Kosuke Mukai, tones down his signature black humor, while showing more sympathy than usual for his do-nothing heroine.

Perhaps this kinder, gentler approach, with its smaller number of cruel-but-funny gags, was motivated by the casting of Maeda as Tamako. In “The Drudgery Train,” the former leader of the AKB48 girl pop group played a sweet-tempered book-store clerk who bonds with the loser hero over their mutual love of mysteries. With her smiling tolerance of the hero’s eccentricities and perversities, she was every otaku‘s dream girl — and Tamako is something of a carry-over, with her faults and weaknesses inspiring affection rather than scorn.

And yet Maeda is more than another idol-turned-actress, and her Tamako is more than a lonely-guy fantasy date. In her shouting matches with her father (Suon Kan), her awkward encounters with “normal” former classmates and her unusual friendship with a junior high school boy (Seiya Ito) who is a budding photographer, Tamako reveals herself as entitled, isolated and deluded (she wants the boy’s portrait pics for a one-chance-in-a-million idol audition). At the same time, there is something admirable in her stubborn determination to steer her own course — or simply let the boat drift.

There is not much of a plot. As the film begins it is fall in Kofu and Tamako, back from Tokyo, is already in full “moratorium” mode, feeding on leftovers and snacks, watching the news on television and complaining about the sad state of Japan. She tells her impatient father, “When the time comes, I’ll do something — but not now.”

As the weeks stretch to months, signs begin to appear of what that “something” might be. Spurred by her older sister’s visit for New Year’s, Tamako speaks of contacting their divorced mom and dreams about a trip to Bali. Then, when spring arrives, she starts to prepare for her own version of a job hunt, enlisting the aid of her photographer pal. Enough to say that the job she has in mind has nothing to do with sporting goods — and only a glancing relationship with reality.

That summer, when she hears that Dad has struck up an acquaintance with a pleasant middle-aged woman (Yasuko Tomita) who teaches accessory-making (think beaded bracelets), she decides to investigate, setting off a train of events that upsets her queasy equilibrium — or rather, stasis.

The scenes that follow include some of the film’s funniest, while the threatened changes reminded me of the various family dramas of Yasujiro Ozu that ended with the daughter (the angelic Setsuko Hara) sadly leaving the father (the saintly Chishu Ryu). The film subverts this storyline while retaining an Ozu-esque pathos, though it’s best not to reveal why.

I will say, though, that “Tamako” struck me as true to the father-daughter dynamic, at least as I know it. Dad can lecture and complain, but he’ll miss her when she’s gone, even if she leaves her banana peel on the table for him to pick up. And move on she almost certainly will, since moratoriums, by definition, must end.

Fun fact: The theme song, “Kisetsu,” is by singer-songwriter Gen Hoshino, formerly of the band Sakerock. Hoshino appeared in the Sion Sono black comedy “Jigoku de Naze Warui (Why Don’t You Play in Hell?).”