Japanese film marriages are as diverse as the real things, ranging from the uncommunicative couple of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “Tokyo Sonata” (2008) to the doting pair of the “Tsuri Baka Nisshi” (“Dairy of a Fishing Fool”) series (1988-2009), though the easy-going wife of the fishing-mad salaryman hero has to put up with a lot, including hubby’s drunken revels with his elderly fishing buddy/boss.

On screen, husbandly bad behavior often goes beyond the merely annoying, however, to philandering and physical violence. The behavior in question — such as the beating of the saintly heroine by her estranged husband in Yoji Yamada’s “Tasogare Seibei” (“The Twilight Samurai,” 2002) — is frequently presented as awful, though feudal social mores enforce wifely tolerance of it. Even so, many Japanese movie husbands get away with murder — or at least extramarital frolics.

The latter is the case with the cheating hero of Isao Yukisada’s overly long but hard hitting (particularly to certain male viewers) “Kondo wa Aisaika” (“A Good Husband”).

Kondo wa Aisaika
Director Isao Yukisada
Run Time 131 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Jan. 16, 2010

Shunsuke Kitami (Etsushi Toyokawa) is a photographer who once had a hot career, while bedding many of his subjects, but in his early 40s he has fallen on hard times, self imposed. He lounges around the house, having not pressed a camera button since a trip to Okinawa with his wife Sakura (Hiroko Yakushimaru) a year earlier. His worshipful young assistant, Makoto (Gaku Hamada), urges him to return to work, but Shunsuke prefers to gaze at his navel and watch his savings dwindle.

The main cause of his funk is his contentious marriage — Shunsuke and Sakura snip and snap at each other like that aptly named couple of ancient radio fame, the Bickerson’s, until Sakura decides to go on a trip alone. With the prospect of temporary bachelorhood before him, Shunsuke finally rouses himself to action, calling in Ranko (Asami Mizukawa), a desperate young actress, for a photo session that he plans to finish in the futon.

But the forgetful — and suspicious — Sakura pops back in at an inconvenient moment and Shunsuke scrambles to look normal, in a smartly choreographed comic rush. The film soon takes a turn for the serious, however, when Sakura decides to leave for good — and asks Shunsuke to take a last portrait of her to commemorate their impending divorce. Developing the photos in his darkroom, he sees one of Sakura running away from the camera, her head turned as though to say a last goodbye. Realizing that this is the end, he tears up.

I’ll stop the plot description here, though the film has more than an hour to go, since the story, scripted by Chihiro Ito from a play by Mayumi Nakatani, does not go in the expected direction — and recounting much more of it might give away the twist.

Toyokawa, whose many roles range from serious romantic leads to comic scapegraces, plays Shunsuke as an aging lothario who’s never had a midlife crisis because he’s never grown past adolescent self absorption. At the same time, he’s distanced and disconnected, viewing life as a play in which he has reluctantly been cast, but would prefer to view from the seats — or tune out entirely.

This character armor is necessary for the story, but it doesn’t makes Shunsuke the most pleasant focus for quite a long movie. Toyokawa adds comic-pathetic touches that keep us, just barely, from becoming totally fed up with him.

As Sakura, Yakushimaru reminds us why the entire country, adolescent boys especially, fell in love with her at her idol peak in the 1980s. While giving us flashes of her old elfin charm, she is also knowing and elusive in a way calculated to madden and entice. But her character, again by dictates of the story, can’t change or grow.

Renji Ishibashi, who has spent much of his long career playing murderous yakuza, crooked businessmen and other bad guys, excels as Bunta, an elderly drag queen who is Shunsuke’s friend, adviser and scold. He plays the character for laughs, but gives her a measure of dignity. It’s a casting against type that works brilliantly.

But once past its snappy, sexy opening, “Kondo wa Aisaika” begins to feel repetitive and static, with the partners playing out their assigned roles as predictably as Punch and Judy. Fortunately, Yukisada, whose credits include the indie ensemble drama “Kyo no Dekigoto” (“A Day on the Planet,” 2003) and the smash teen melodrama “Sekai no Chushin de Ai o Sakebu” (“Crying Out Love in the Center of the World,” 2004), finally hits the love-guilt-regret chords that drive the story affectingly home.

Whether or not you are Shunsuke’s brother in crime, if you, Mr. Married Man, can see this film without mentally vowing to repent and reform, you are either a good husband indeed — or beyond help. Or maybe you think you’ll make it all good on your deathbed with a simple “gomen” and “arigato” (“sorry” and “thanks”) like so many Japanese fictional hubbies. Don’t be so sure, bub.

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