Kids often think their teachers live in a box outside classroom hours — they are shocked when they see Miss Krabappel buying groceries or walking her dog. Guess what kids — teachers also often have no clue what you do outside school, unless they are informed by parents, social workers or the police.

Some teachers, though, play an active role in their students’ out-of-classroom lives as coaches, tutors and, as so many headlines remind us, lovers.

Keisuke Yoshida, winner of the 2006 Yubari Fantastic Film Festival grand prize for his comic featurette “Namanatsu,” has made the latter two relationships the basis of his first feature, “Tsukue no Nakami (The Contents of the Desk).” In other words, his hero, a socially inept freeter (job-hopping part-time worker) in his mid-20s, falls hard for the excruciatingly cute high-school girl he is prepping for her college entrance exam.

Tsukue no Nakami
Director Keisuke Yoshida
Run Time 104 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens April 21, 2007

Most directors would play this material for laughs or sex — or both. Yoshida, however, goes the more difficult route of showing us his hero and heroine in the round, minus the winks and leers. In the first half of the film we see the student through the infatuated eyes of her home tutor, in the latter half, more or less as she really is. Then in the final act, fantasy meets reality, to comic and tragic effect.

Yoshida, who also wrote the script, tries for the same sort of puzzle plot, pieced together cleverly at the end, made popular by “The Sixth Sense” and its many imitators. That he doesn’t quite bring it off is no surprise, but I can understand why he tried — a straight chronological treatment, exposing the truth from scene one, would have quickly deflated the film’s comedy, which is based on idiot male delusions about an object of erotic/romantic interest.

That this comedy is laugh-out-loud, slap-the-armrest funny is due mainly to the spot-on casting of comic Koji Abe as the freeter Baba and Mio Suzuki as the student Nozomi. A bear of a man who looks as though he wouldn’t hurt a fly, Abe plays Baba as a tongue-tied bumbler who knows that his feelings for Nozomi are wrong, but is hoping against ridiculous hope that somehow, some day they may be reciprocated.

Suzuki, a pixie who is about half her costar’s size, plays Nozomi as a sweet-but-enigmatic type who may be signaling interest in — or simply amusement at — her sensei’s overtures. In any case, her sphinxlike reactions to his wrong-footed attempts at seduction are far funnier than obvious eye-rolling. Suzuki knows, whether by instinct or instruction, that the first rule of the good straight man (or woman) is to react, rather than act; to be a catalyst for laughs rather than a competitor for them. Her coy little smiles and quizzical stares in response to Baba’s gaffes send him into fresh spasms of apology or obfuscation — and the audience into fresh paroxysms of laughter.

Baba, it turns out, has a live-in girlfriend, Misa (Ari Odoriko), who is the polar opposite of the girly Nozomi. Tall, short-haired and favoring casual fashion, Misa looks, acts and talks so mannishly that, seeing her rag on poor Baba the first time, I had the fleeting thought that he had found himself one strange roommate. Baba, terrified of (but entranced by) feminine women, probably saw her as relatively unthreatening — almost like being with another guy! — but now he is having second thoughts — or rather dreams of escape.

Meanwhile, Baba is fatheadedly confessing his new infatuation to another of his students, the coolly indifferent Fujimaki (Sou Sakamoto), while Nozomi is listening to the love troubles of her best friend, the struggling-to-act-sophisticated Tae (Natsumi Kiyoura).

Then Nozomi takes her big test — and everything unravels. At a critical moment, the film rewinds to the beginning and we see what was really going on in her life outside her relationship with Baba. This second half plays like a typical seishun eiga (youth film), while the plot’s contrivances show too clearly.

Nonetheless, this section also delivers home truths about not only Nozomi’s particular situation, but the nature of adolescence, female division, and the perils — and absurdities — of age-inappropriate love, male division. Nozomi, we realize, is so caught up in her own dramas that Baba’s clumsy wooing barely registers, save as borderline icky behavior, though he is not as bad as her dear old dad, who is still jumping into the tub with her nightly.

Are Nozomi — and I — being too generous? Isn’t Baba’s interest in his student ipso facto gross — and even pedophilic? Yoshida is careful to show us that Baba is basically a decent sort and that Nozomi is more the sexually blossoming young woman than the innocent child. Still, he is treading a dangerous line — and occasionally slips over. But the best comedy is often found in sexual minefields and Yoshida deserves credit for not defusing his strongest gags with phony PC sentiments, but instead fearlessly setting them off, one after the other, even if a couple blow up in his face. For a few explosive laughs, it’s worth it.

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