The varieties of love are many: From the chaste and platonic, to the sexually uninhibited and emotionally obsessed. In a long career as a pinku eiga (pink film) director Yuji Tajiri has concentrated on the latter end of the scale, but in his latest film, “Koppamijin (Broken Pieces),” he makes a successful, not-unexpected swing to the former.
Pinku films accounted for a large share of Japanese films produced in the 1970s and came to be defined as short features, shot on 35 mm film and including a scene of simulated bonking every 10 minutes or so. Shown in specialized theaters, mostly located in Japan’s many red-light districts, they were gradually supplanted, first by pornographic videos, then DVDs, and now the limitless supply of adult websites catering to every taste. But Tajiri soldiered on through the genre’s long decline, making “OL no Aijiri: Love Juice” (Known abroad primarily as “No Love Juice: Rustling in Bed” and “Office Lady Love Juice”) in 1999 — a pink film masterpiece about an oddly matched couple’s nakedly revealing (in all senses) tryst. Winner of domestic honors, including a Japan Movie Professional Award and a Pink Grand Prix, “Love Juice” also screened to acclaim abroad, receiving a special audience award at the 2002 Udine Far East Film Festival.
Premiering at the Nippon Connection festival in Frankfurt in May, “Broken Pieces” begins as a romantic drama of the unrequited-love sort. Kaede (Miwako Wagatsuma), a 20-year-old apprentice hairdresser, is drifting through life with a menial job she doesn’t like and a rocky relationship she wants to escape. Then she hears that Takuya (Mukau Nakamura), a crush from her childhood, has returned to her provincial town after six years in Tokyo. She desperately wants to reconnect but her fumbling attempts to rekindle their former friendship, are brusquely snuffed out by the dishy-looking, but emotionally distant Takuya. Has her one true love turned stone cold?
Ships passing in the night — this is nothing surprising, but Tajiri, who also wrote the script, takes the story into territory seldom explored by local romantic dramas. His central question, however, is a universal one: Can love survive even when the usual conditions for it are neither present nor possible?
In the course of answering that question, the story expands beyond Kaede’s dilemma, after setting up the expectation that she will be our heroine. The sequences of Kaede riding her bicycle with lonely, dogged determination through city streets have many parallels in Japanese dramas about women on difficult journeys to true love, if not always happy endings. The focus, however, somewhat confusingly shifts to Takuya’s renewed friendship with Ryuta (Ryuju Kobayashi), Kaede’s easygoing older brother, who was his close childhood pal, and Ryuta’s six-year relationship with Yuki (Yoshino Imamura), his smiling helpmate at the coffee shop he manages, as well as his bride-to-be.
As the film’s various interpersonal dynamics shift — with upheavals that affect all four protagonists — the meaning of the title becomes clear: In the normal course of events, the broken pieces of shattered loves and friendships do not reassemble. Instead, the pieces drift apart and find new friends and lovers. But sometimes, the film suggests, they can come together again in unconventional ways, even without the usual sort of sexual, or other, glue.
This is not according to formula, but it does ring true to lived experience. Also, Tajiri gets the best from his cast of unknowns, beginning with Wagatsuma as Kaede, who earns sympathy as easily as a lost puppy, while suggesting a deeply rooted strength. The more difficult role, however, is that of Takuya, the returning native who feels alien and fears dropping the mask that both separates and protects him from others. Nakamura handles it well, communicating Takuya’s vulnerability and neediness in even his more stone-faced moments, which drive poor Kaede to distraction.
Similarly adept at making difficult transitions are Kobayashi as Ryuta and Imamura as Yuki, though detailing why would give too much away. They give weight and depth to characters who initially seem secondary. That is, they make “Broken Pieces” a true ensemble drama, though it finally comes back to Kaede, as it must. Exactly what she learns I won’t say, though, after many a professional fumble, she finally gives one of the most sensual shampoos I have ever seen in a Japanese film.
Who knew that all those pink films would be terrific preparation, if Tajiri is so inclined, for making hair product ads?
Fun fact: Yuji Tajiri produced “Broken Pieces” through his own company, Boukenou — run by a collective of four pink film directors: Tajiri, Shinji Imaoka, Rei Sakamoto and Toshiro Enomoto. Together with Yoshitaka Kamata, Mitsuru Meike and Toshiya Ueno this group was once known as the “Seven Lucky Gods of Pink.”