Ensemble dramas about the ups and downs of love, and its various substitutes, are popular now — at least with indie filmmakers. (A contrast to Japan’s commercial romantic dramas, which still focus on star-crossed couples, one of whom is usually dead by the closing credits.)
A recent example of this popularity is Hitoshi One’s high-energy, close-to-farcical “Koi no Uzu (Be My Baby),” whose central characters are drifting along society’s margins. Another is Daisuke Miura’s similarly titled “Ai no Uzu (Love’s Whirlpool),” which follows a sex party of strangers from its awkward beginning to a bittersweet end. (Miura also scripted the former, quite different-in-tone film.)
Then there is Rikiya Imaizumi’s enigmatically titled “Sad Tea,” which had its premiere in 2013 at the Japanese Cinema Splash section of the 26th Tokyo International Film Festival, and which takes an approach somewhere in the middle. Despite its light comic feel, it is not trying for sitcom-style laughs. At the same time, it addresses a real-life question with no easy answers — especially for its perplexed principals: What does it mean to properly love someone?
“Sad Tea” is the second film to emerge from the actors’ and directors’ workshop at Enbu Seminar, a Tokyo-based film school. It is comprised of 12 semi-independent sections that tie together at the end; it is not, however, a well-made drama whose plot points click together with a satisfying snap. Instead, it is a naturalistic, if carefully shaped, examination of how egos, needs and desires can impinge on each other like particles in a super collider of the heart — which can blow apart or bind together when they meet.
The hero, Shin Kashiwagi (Seiji Okabe), is an aspiring scriptwriter and director who is living with one woman, Yuko (Chihiro Nagai), while seeing another: the winsome, perceptive Midori (Aya Kunitake). Yuko knows about this situation and seems OK with it, while Midori’s feelings are more conflicted (“Did you ever wish you had never met someone?” she asks Kashiwagi at one point). Despite a permanent cowlick that gives him the air of a socially challenged nerd, Kashiwagi is adept at rationalizing his own bad behavior, even as he reproves himself for it (“I know I’m messed up,” he says at one point).
His earnest pal Waseda (Tomohisa Takeda) is his polar opposite. Going into a dress shop to buy a birthday present for his girlfriend, Sonoko (Kayo Hoshino), he becomes infatuated with the cute sales clerk and announces to Sonoko that he is dumping her, after she thanks him for his gift.
Convinced he has found true love, Waseda believes his motives are pure. Now he has to win over his new inamorata, who is barely aware of his existence.
Then there is Natsu (Chika Uchida), who puts up with a physically abusive fiancee; she tells her friends she likes him because they have “honest fights.” She also has a past as a small-time idol singer, who has long been basking in the distant attention of a devoted fan. Perhaps unwisely, she decides to finally meet him face-to-face.
As comic relief the film also gives us a middle-aged coffee-shop master, Bon (Takuya Fuji), who is head-over-heels with his only server — the cruelly indifferent Tanako (Fumiko Aoyagi). She in turn has something of a crush on a customer: Kashiwagi. Around and around the merry-go-round goes and where it stops, nobody knows, though the connections between the characters suggest an intertwining of eventual romantic fates.
What we cannot tell so easily is whether the guys (who are mostly self-deluded) will wake up to reality, and whether the women (who are mostly sympathetic types) will stick around for what may be a long wait.
This may sound like a typical romantic-comedy setup, with the characters, after many missteps, finally stumbling upon their soulmates. But a realist to the end, Imaizumi knows that we can’t always get what we want and don’t always know what we need.
The cast is uniformly good, if largely unknown, interacting with an improvised feel, though Imaizumi made them stick closely to his well-constructed script.
And the meaning of “Sad Tea?” The film doesn’t say, though it beats one of Imaizumi’s earlier titles, which was thankfully abandoned: “Nothing to Do and Bored.” If hard to imagine on a theater marquee, it certainly describes one of the baser motives for cheating. But are there any noble ones?
Fun fact: Rikiya Imaizumi did clerical work for the Enbu Seminar film school for three years before directing his first film, the 2010 band documentary “Tama no Eiga.” In his free time while working at the school, Imaizumi would sit in on classes, getting what amounted to a paid film education.