‘Nonko 36-sai (Kaji Tetsudai)’

Odd couple finds love and chicks in the sticks

by Mark Schilling

As if forecasting the current recession, more Japanese films about life’s losers are hitting the screens now.

The range in tone and quality is wide, from tear-jerking tripe like “Homeless Chugakusei” (“Homeless Student”) to imaginatively crafted dramas such as “Tokyo Sonata” and “Okuribito” (“Departures”), but the underlying message is the same: The bubble-era dream of ever-bigger-and-better everything, from careers to consumer goods, has ended.

Many people in their 20s to mid-30s, who entered the workforce as Japanese companies were frantically downsizing full-time staff, have known nothing but a series of temporary, part-time and contract jobs that lead to nothing. At an age when members of the middle class are supposed to have a home and family, they are still living like students or, more humiliatingly, total dependents.

The latter is the situation of Nobuko (Maki Sakai), stage name Nonko, a failed actress who, at the start of Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s eponymous film, has returned from Tokyo to her parent’s home in the Saitama countryside. Now in her mid-30s, she reluctantly takes up the role of “household helper” (the meaning of the film’s Japanese subtitle) to her dithery housewife mother and stern Shinto priest father.

Nonko 36-sai (Kaji Tetsudai)
Director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Run Time 105 minutes
Language Japanese

This conveniently ambiguous job description is traditionally applied to young, marriageable women living at home and waiting for Mr. Right, but in Nonko’s case it is bitterly ironic. Her one-time Mr. Right — her former husband and manager (Shingo Tsurumi) — wronged her with broken promises and other women.

With zero prospects and no ambition to speak of, she spends her days sullenly lolling around the house, pedaling her rickety bike around town or drinking herself into a stupor at the bar of a superficially friendly former classmate. Her father, resplendent in his priestly finery, and married sister, snotty in her designer clothes, frankly consider her human trash. Nonko has little but contempt for both of them. (Mom, a well-meaning cipher, doesn’t really count.)

Into this sour domestic drama stumbles Masaru (Gen Hoshino), a young peddler who wants to set up shop on the temple grounds for the upcoming festival. Simple-hearted but persistent, Masaru enlists a skeptical Nonko as an ally in his campaign to win permission from the gangster who controls the festival stalls.

What we have, it seems, is a romance of two incompatibles — a jaded older woman and a poor-but-honest younger man — who discover the good in each other, as well as a second chance in life, by the fade out.

If it were only so easy. Kumakiri, who has filmed everything from acts of depravity by crazed student radicals (“Kichiku Dai Enkai” [“Kichiku,” 1997]) to a convenience-store clerk’s dreams of baseball glory (“Seishun Kinzoku Bat” [“Green Mind, Metal Bats,” 2006]), first takes the story in a darker, more emotionally complex direction.

Nonko and Masaru become closer all right — and even engage in some awkward love-making — but both are profoundly wounded in ways that a shy kiss — or even a tumble in the futon — can’t heal.

At the same time, they experience moments of joy — as when they chase a stray chick around a field of flowers — reminiscent of sappy 1960s Hollywood odes to love, love, love.

As if realizing he has gone too far with the feel-good, Kumakiri delivers a climax that is a spectacularly self-destructive explosion. It’s like switching TV channels from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (the “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head” bicycling sequence) to “Scarface” (the Al-Pacino-plunging-into-the- fountain sequence).

For all its excesses, in both directions, “Nonko” is superbly centered by Sakai in the title role. Rather than cute up the character, Sakai plays her as a prickly combination of angry and needy, hard-nosed and soft-hearted, standoffish and sex-starved. That is, she is a tangle of emotions and impulses both sympathetic and real.

While feeling it would be a disaster to fall for her, I couldn’t help liking her — even when she was running after that damn chicken.