Watching recent Japanese films, I often have the feeling that their makers need an imagination injection, or simply need to get out more. It’s not just that few, especially at the commercial end of the spectrum, work from original scripts. Plenty of great movies are adapted from other media.
But rather than view their source material through their own observations and introspections — that is, make it their own — filmmakers in Japan frequently latch onto secondhand inspirations or simply transfer manga, TV shows or games to the screen, formulas, cliches and all.
Screened at the recently concluded Tokyo International Film Festival, Ryosuke Hashiguchi’s “Koibito Tachi” (“Three Stories of Love”) shows up the derivativeness of much of the local competition.
This drama about the loves and losses of three vastly different (if loosely connected) people began as a workshop project led by Hashiguchi. In writing the script, a process that took eight months, he tailored each of his stories to the personalities and strengths of his three leads, all unknowns cast from auditions, while drawing on his own life as an “out” gay man who has wrestled with depression. All of his films, beginning with “Hatachi no Binetsu” (“A Touch of Fever”), his 1993 feature debut about gay rent boys, have this personal element, though none are overtly autobiographical.
It’s hard, though, to see any clear connection between the nattily dressed, well-spoken director on stage at TIFF and his hero, Atsushi (Atsushi Shinohara), a chubby, gloomy, disheveled guy with an unusual gift; a bridge inspector, he checks concrete pilings using only a hammer, his keen hearing and his instincts. Alone in his tiny, trash-strewn apartment, he mourns bitterly for his wife, killed three years earlier by a madman on the street.
Then there is Toko (Toko Narushima), a middle-aged housewife who drudges for her indifferent husband and complaining mother-in-law while obsessively watching an old video of a now-distant, not-so-close encounter with Princess Masako. Fed up with her treadmill existence, she begins an affair with a scam artist (Ken Mitsuishi) who promises her, not the moon, but a chicken farm.
We also meet Shinomiya (Ryo Ikeda), a gay lawyer with a sardonic grin, an inflated self-regard and a younger lover he treats like dirt. Then his life starts to fall apart and he finds refuge with a school friend he once loved, who now has a wife and child.
The stories of Atsushi and Toko begin as exercises in miserabilist cinema, with their central characters mired in seemingly hopeless situations, while Shinoyama’s segment initially plays like pitch-dark comedy (including the “joke” of the smirking hero being pushed down a flight of stone steps by an anonymous hand).
As these stories develop, their central characters reveal unexpected facets that individualize and elevate them. They are, we see, feeling, thinking beings worthy of attention and, yes, love, for all their flaws. In other words, they are real and familiar, even if we don’t see their exact reflections in our mirrors.
The three leads all create their performances from the inside out with art that looks artless, but the stand out is Narushima. Her performance as Toko, from her slack-jawed stare at the TV screen to the ungainly herky-jerky dance she performs dressing and undressing, comically exposes an unglamorous (or depending on your mood, gross) private reality. But Toko’s total authenticity gives weight to her words when she finally explains her motives and dreams to her drugged-out lover. As strange as it sounds, she achieves a kind of grace that illuminates not only her life, but ours.
To put it as simply and plainly as Toko might herself, “Three Stories of Love” is the best film I’ve seen all year.