Marriages are strange creatures. They can die suddenly, when from the outside everything seems fine, or they can linger on for years when it’s obvious to everyone, including the two principals, that it’s all over.

Hitoshi Yazaki plumbs the mysteries of one such inexplicable (to outsiders) marriage in his aptly titled new film “Sweet Little Lies.” Based on Kaori Ekuni’s 2004 novel of the same name, it is quite different in style and tone from “Strawberry Shortcakes,” Yazaki’s quirky, insightful 2006 drama about four women looking for love in all the wrong places — and finding common ground at the end.

The pace of this new film is slower, the look is more austere, even chilly, and the emotions are more tamped down, though bubbling away underneath the frozen smiles and averted glances. If “Strawberry Shortcakes” was a series of colorful, revealing Polaroid snaps, “Sweet Little Lies” is a formal portrait, tinged in terminal gray. But Yazaki is still Yazaki, fascinated by the theme of love and death, such as in the way love can make death easier to bear or embrace; as in two lovers walking hand in hand into the sea — and eternity.

Sweet Little Lies
Director Hitoshi Yazaki
Run Time 117 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing (March 12, 2010)

Nothing so dire seems to be in store for the film’s couple as the story begins. Ruriko (Miki Nakatani) and Satoshi (Nao Omori) have been married for three years and maintain the rituals of newlyweds. No demanding kids for one thing, no intrusive in-laws for another. They still have a real cooked breakfast together in the morning, a real sit-down dinner when Satoshi comes home from his job at an IT company and, on the weekends, real dates. In the daytime, Ruriko lovingly hand crafts stuffed bears that she exhibits in galleries.

Their marriage, however, is running on empty. Passion has long since given way to strained politeness.

Having done his husbandly duty as a dinner conversation partner, Satoshi retreats to a room where he plays video games in blessed isolation. When Ruriko confesses her loneliness, his answer is an embarrassed smirk. She does not press him — and they continue living their little lies.

The lies start to grow. Ruriko meets the young, handsome, burning-eyed Haruo (Juichi Kobayashi) at a gallery show, where he pleads for a bear for his girlfriend. Later, they run into each other at a video shop. He is the passionate spark, she is the dry kindling — and soon an affair is blazing away.

Meanwhile, Satoshi reconnects with Shio (Chizuru Ikewaki), a cute kohai (junior) from his college scuba-diving club. She invites him on dinner dates, then a diving trip to Izu, Shizuoka Prefecture. Not long after, the wet suits come off — and Satoshi’s days of isolation are over. Neither Ruriko nor Satoshi breathe a word of these liaisons to anyone, starting with each other.

In the usual Japanese melodrama of martial infidelity the truth will out — followed by shouting matches, stormy exits and floods of tears. Yazaki and scriptwriter Kyoko Inukai (who also worked with him on “Strawberry Shortcakes”) more credibly let sleeping dogs — or rather cheating spouses — lie.

For one thing, Ruriko and Satoshi find lying rather easy — and show few outward signs of guilt. Instead, they become less tense around each other, as though extramarital sex were a sort of relaxation therapy.

When their lovers become more demanding, they balk. The glue holding this pair together, we realize, is stronger than we thought.

But what is the glue? A subplot involving Ruriko’s friendship with a dog belonging to an elderly neighbor (Akiko Kazami) offers one, important answer. Sound strange? But in Yazaki’s world, mundane things, such as the title sweets in “Strawberry Shortcakes” or the pooch in “Sweet Little Lies” serve as apt metaphors for something larger, something that has been implied all along.

I won’t give that something away. I will only say that Ruriko and Satoshi, now in their mid-30s, feel youth slipping away. Whatever confidence they once had about their future is also crumbling. The lies, we see, are patches for something battered, but still necessary. Their marriage is a lifeboat in a rough sea of uncertainty.

Nakatani has made it a specialty of playing women on the verge, including the luckless heroine of “Kiraware Matsuko no Issho” (“Memories of Matsuko,” 2006) and the doomed provincial aristocrat in “Zero no Shoten” (“Zero Focus,” 2009). As Ruriko she projects not only a wintery isolation, but also a steely intensity that can suddenly burst into flames. When she tells Haruo she loves him, her eyes pierce, her words sear. I felt as though I were hearing them for the first time ever on the screen.

The ending is no surprise, but Yazaki can’t quite decide how to deliver it. It looks as if the credits are about to roll, but another scene begins — then another and another. It’s like a band that wears out its goodbye with too many encores, but is still too good to hate.

“Sweet Little Lies” tells truths that are not for everyone, especially those who believe that blunt honesty is always the best marital policy. But how do you really know your partner agrees?

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