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by Mark Schilling

Some directors put their own neuroses on the screen, with attitudes ranging from the dramatically self-lacerating (Ingmar Bergman) to the comically self-deprecating (Woody Allen). Where actor-turned-director Jiro Sato departs from the messed-up norm in “Memo,” his first feature film, is in the rawness and intensity of his on-screen dysfunction.

Playing Junpei, the severely disturbed, obsessive-compulsive brother of the heroine’s father, Sato sprays words in stuttered, blurted, barely comprehensible fragments, as his emotions surge and shift in microbursts, like a mad March wind. He washes his hands again and again and again, pausing only to say, with gritted teeth and a sparkly eyed grin, that this time will be the last. But it isn’t.

Meanwhile, Sato’s teenage heroine, Mayuko (Hanae Kan), writes memos to herself on every occasion, on any surface, with any available medium, including her own blood. She buys writing materials the way Rupert Murdoch used to buy media companies — voraciously, in massive quantities.

Director Jiro Sato
Run Time 106 minutes
Language Japanese

Watching these antics in real life might well be intensely annoying, like enduring a two-hour plane ride next to a nervous passenger with a long list of tics: nail biting, throat clearing, nose blowing, purse rummaging and so on. But Sato, who based his script on his own memo-writing obsession, as well as other personal quirks, digs beneath the surface nuttiness to reveal the struggling, basically likable humans underneath. Also, his so-called normal characters often act in odd ways that range from the mildly eccentric to the outright antisocial. The world is crazy, he seems to be saying, which sounds about right.

Sato gives a comic spin to the film in general, and his own performance in particular, but he doesn’t resort to easy laughs. Instead, he uses comedy to illuminate the absurdity of his characters’ behavior, while acknowledging the dead-serious forces that drive it, from feelings of worthlessness to the fear of bursting into a million little pieces unless you feed the obsession that is devouring you. So we feel sorry for (and a bit irritated at) Junpei, stuck in his hand-washing routine like a needle in a damaged record groove, but we also can’t help smiling at him. He knows he is being ridiculous — and invites us to share the joke. (If he didn’t know — he would be beyond help.)

The film’s focus, however, is Mayuko, a tall, striking-looking girl living a normal-enough life in an ordinary-enough family, though both Mom (Saki Takaoka) and Dad (Takayuki Takuma) are on the clueless side. She goes to school and sits in class like any other high-school girl, but midway through a math quiz, she freezes and, turning over the paper, begins scribbling her random thoughts. They have nothing to do with the business at hand, but she could no more stop writing them than she could stop breathing. She scrawls these “memos” during classes, between classes and at bedtime, sitting up again and again to grab a sheet of paper from the towering stack on her night table.

Emptying the contents of her brain this way brings her relief — but it is only temporary. She finds a sympathetic, if easily distracted, ear for her problems in a woman counselor (Miho Shiraishi), but no solutions.

Then one day she wakes up to find a strange man in her bed. It is Junpei (Sato), the aforementioned uncle, who has been incognito for years and whom she barely remembers. He frantically apologizes and seeing that he is harmless, if decidedly odd, she grudgingly forgives him. But as his visit lengthens — he has no home, no job and no prospects — Mom and Dad become more and more fed up with him.

Mayuko, on the other hand, recognizes a kindred neurotic spirit. When Junpei finally finds a place of his own, she visits him, listens to his rants — and realizes he knows her and her illness in ways Mom and Dad and her counselor never can. But understanding the cause is not the same as effecting the cure, especially for Junpei himself.

“Memo” has good advice for neurotics: Desperately resisting the phobias and compulsions only makes them stronger. Overcoming them, we see, requires a willingness to accept them — and live with them. Russell Crowe, as the schizophrenic mathematician John Nash, had a similar revelation in “A Beautiful Mind.” Sato, though, really, really knows whereof he speaks — but I’m not sure I’d like to fly in a plane with him.