All at sea for Japanese indie

by Mark Schilling

Since its start in 1978, the Pia Film Festival has served as a proving ground for young Japanese indie filmmakers, with many of its prize winners going on to greater fame, if not always fortune. Among them are Ryosuke Hashiguchi (“Gururi no Koto”), Shinobu Yaguchi (“Happy Flight”), Naoko Ogigami (“Kamome Shokudo”) and Kenji Uchida (“After School”), all of whom made their first theatrical features through the PFF Scholarship program.

The latest PFF Scholarship film, Takatsugu Naito’s “Futoko” (“The Dark Harbor”), continues a movement, seen in the recent work of the above-mentioned sempai (teacher), toward more audience-friendly — or frankly commercial — themes and treatments, away from the sort of dark, knotty, personal films that once typified the indie scene in Japan.

This doesn’t mean that Naito, whose second-ever film, “Midnight Pigskin Wolf,” won him a PFF Scholarship in 2006, is selling out before he even gets properly started. A math major in college, whose first ambition was to become a TV comedy writer, he hardly fits the artsy indie director template. Also, in its own quirky way, “Futoko” is a personal film, with its clueless fisherman hero serving, Naito insists in a program interview, as a directorial stand-in. The emphasis, however, is less on the hero’s angst, and more on deadpan, cutesy-nutsy gags.

Director Takatsugu Naito
Run Time 99 minutes
Language Japanese

He is Manzo (Shinya Kote), who inherited his small boat from his deceased father and lives alone in the family manse, subsisting on fried meat and cabbage and frozen “American dogs” (i.e. breaded hotdogs). His only recreation is drinking at the local pub, with a single rose in his lapel to attract any females who may be in range.

Now 38, Manzo is thoroughly sick of the bachelor life. The rose isn’t working. Nothing is working. So he quickly signs up for a party organized by the local government at which single city girls can meet eligible local fisherman. He splurges on fancy duds hawked by a fast-talking clothing shop owner (Akaji Maro), but paces the party room like a menacing bad guy from an old yakuza movie. No sale.

Then, one night, he discovers unwelcome visitors in his house — a destitute woman and boy who sneak in to raid his refrigerator. The woman, Mitsuko (Yuko Miyamoto), explains that her ex-boyfriend and the father of the boy Masao (Kazuki Hirooka) abandoned them, leaving nary a yen.

Seeing that Mitsuko is young, pretty and available, Manzo soon strikes a silent deal with her — sex in return for food and shelter — but, being a romantic at heart, falls for her. She, in turn, plays the role of lover and helpmate, sorting his fish and wearing the red kerchief he sews for her.

But Mitsuko’s air of housewifely contentment is about as genuine as the smile of a club hostess — probably her former occupation. Manzo is cruising for an emotional bruising. Naito films this story, based on his own original script, in a style that verges on the farcical. Dialogue tumbles out in choppy, monotonal waves that sound jarring and odd — until you realize that the rhythms are those of manzai (comic duo) routines. Also, the picnic Manzo, Mitsuko and Masao enjoy one sunny day is staged like a goofy tableau in a soft-drink ad, with everyone frozen in “blissful” poses. Then we see a shot of this trio in the tall grass, bobbing up and down in time to the music like targets in a whack-a-mole game.

Despite these moments of lighter-than-air wackiness, the film keeps one foot in the earthy here-and-now. One reason is the setting in a real working fishing port, with the weathered locals often in frame. Another is Naito’s love of foregrounding everything — from the chug of the engine as the boat leaves the dock to the fishing net, with empty cans and seaweed attached, curling into a blue plastic box. Where other directors would give us only the atmospherics of Manzo’s job, Naito puts us right into his rubber boots.

A veteran stage actor, Kote is not only physically right for the part — with a refrigerator frame and the mug of a bearded, wounded bear — but inhabits it so totally that, looking at the film’s trailer, I wondered if he were a real-life fisherman cast for the role. But no amateur could manage Kote’s balance of lonely intensity and lumpish charm.

Last, but hardly least, is the instrumental score by Akira Matsumoto, which has a nostalgic 1960s Group Sounds feel that perfectly expresses Manzo’s sad-funny appeal. I’m just glad, though, that I didn’t have to watch him take off his shirt.