MARK SCHILLINGMost commercial films in Japan, as elsewhere, fall into clearly marked boxes, from genre (horror, romcom) to story (zero-to-hero, teen love/tragic death). Indie films here also follow familiar thematic patterns, with miscommunication and alienation being favorites.

“Subete wa Umi ni Naru” (“All to the Sea”), the first feature by TV director and novelist Akane Yamada, centers on an insecure woman looking for love in the wrong places and a sensitive teenage boy with a troubled home and school life. These character types are about as common in Japanese indie films as vengeful female ghosts in Japanese horror films. In other words, shells meet sea shore.

The film, however, is set in the world of books and the bookish. It even lists a “book editor” in the credits — that is, a fellow who selected the volumes that appear in the film as not only objects, but discussion points. This was a first for me, and I’ve seen some weird credits over the years, beginning with the bird, fly and spider wranglers in “Psycho.”

Subete wa Umi ni Naru
Director Akane Yamada
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Opens Jan. 23, 2010

Glancing at the plot description before the screening, I expected a comedy, since book stores in Japanese films, such as “Zenzen Daijobu” (“Fine, Totally Fine,” 2008) and “Tsumuji Kaze Shokudo no Yoru” (“Night at the Whirlwind Restaurant,” 2009), are commonly refuges for amusing oddballs.

True, the book shop where the heroine works is mostly staffed by comic reliefs, including a gorgeous radical feminist (Mina Fujii) who works part-time at a hostess club, and a grinning schlub (Ryu Morioka) who can’t read common kanji (a dig at a certain former prime minister?).

“Subete wa Ui ni Naru,” however, is a serious drama that subverts many a genre cliche, though it also occasionally descends into melodrama of a familiar TV type. Also, like the best Japanese directors, from Yasujiro Ozu onward, Akane makes us understand and like her two principals, flaws and all.

First we meet Natsuki (Eriko Sato), a bookstore clerk who has created a popular display of books for “people who don’t understand love.” She puts herself in that category, since she has been tumbling into loveless beds since she was a teenager engaging in enjo kosai (“paid dating” or, to put it plainly, prostitution). A book lover herself, she is hardly stupid but, as she enters her late 20s, she is starting to feel desperate.

When Natsuki mistakenly accuses a middle-aged woman (Makiko Watanabe) of shoplifting and she and the store manager (Yutaka Matsushige) go to the woman’s home to apologize. The woman’s college professor husband (Akira Shirai) angrily demands compensation, but the next day her teenage son, Koji (Yuya Yagira), comes to the store to tell Natsuki that no such payment is necessary.

Koji, Natuski later learns, is not only trying to keep his dysfunctional family — depressed, kleptomaniac mother; abusive, rageball father; and rebellious punk sister — from flying apart, but fending off bullies at school. Realizing that he is a fellow bookworm and anxious loner, she feels sympathetic and protective.

Meanwhile, she is dating Kajima (Jun Kaname) — an ambitious, cynical book salesman who works for a big publisher. When he casually changes an ad blurb she wrote at his request, without her permission, she kicks him out — but can’t quit him.

After this, the friendship between Natsuki and Koji deepens, but the solutions to their problems — including the problem of whether to take their relationship to a sexual level — are not the expected. Even the ending is rather ambiguous, though true to this odd couple’s characters. I imagined Akane’s producers frantically writing notes urging her to put the film back on the genre rails. I’m glad, though, that she round-filed them.

Her casting of Sato as Natsuki may have also caused some head-scratching, since Sato is better known for her comic skills and sheer hotness, as abundantly shown in “Cutie Honey” (2004) and “Funuke-domo Kanashimi no Ai o Misero” (“Funuke: Show Some Love, You Losers!,” 2007), than her dramatic acting chops. Off screen, however, she is a serious book lover, as well as a novelist and essayist. On screen, she combines her intellectual interests and natural attributes in ways that convince and surprise.

Costar Yagira, winner of a Best Actor prize at Cannes for his work in Hirokazu Kore’eda’s “Daremo Shiranai” (“Nobody Knows,” 2004) plays Koji with a clarity and intensity that make his performance not only a stand-out, but a throw-back, as though he’d been beamed in, pure, stubborn heart and all, from one of Nikkatsu’s (Japan’s oldest movie studio) seishun eiga (“youth film”) from the 1960s.

The title “Subete wa Umi ni Naru” may imply a final Buddhistic merging with the eternal — but the film is alive to life’s strange possibilities, including the one that books, of all things, might really matter.

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