Film / Reviews

'Bakamono (Fools)'

'Godzilla' director tackles love and the age gap

by Mark Schilling

Age-inappropriate romance, on screen or off, stirs up passionate reactions. Cougars — an American term for middle-aged women who actively seek out younger lovers — find both supporters (who see them as adventurous and sexy) and slammers (who deride them as deluded and shameless). I like a saying of my mother’s: What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Or meat for the cougar.

In Japan, where new acquaintances often exchange ages soon after their name cards, age gaps yawn wider than elsewhere, especially in show business. Media stories about celebrity couples inevitably comment, often with a tut-tut or a nudge-nudge, on any age difference considered out of the ordinary, such as the woman being older than the man, period.

The central couple in Shusuke Kaneko’s new drama “Bakamono (literal translation: “Fools”) meet when the guy, Hide (Hiroki Narimiya), is 19 and the girl, Gakuko (Yuki Uchida), is 27. This gap is hardly scandalous, even in Japan, but is usually meaningful anywhere. Hide, a college student living with his parents in Takasaki, Gunma Prefecture, is a virgin; Gakuko, who works at a supermarket where Hide finds a part-time job, is sensual and worldly wise, but also down to earth and easygoing. She takes him to bed with an indulgent, appraising smile; he falls for her hard and fast.

Bakamono (Fools)
Director Shusuke Kaneko
Run Time 120 minutes
Language Japanese

This, we soon sense, is not going to end well for the eager, puppy-doggish hero. Based on a novel by Akiko Itoyama, the film begins promisingly enough, on a theme rarely treated in Japanese films. Narimiya (“Lalapipo [Lala Pipo: A Lot of People],” “Doroppu [Drop]”) has the right bright-eyed look, while Uchida (“Zen,” “Kuwaietto Rumu ni Yokoso [Welcome to the Quiet Room]”) vibrantly embodies many an adolescent virgin male fantasy: The hot older woman who gladly takes the lead.

Lucky Hide. And lucky us, able to see Uchida in a role that fits her like a sexy, well-worn pair of jeans. But when Gakuko dumps Hide for more realistic husband material, he drowns his sorrows in booze. From this point, the film descends into dreary melodrama, as it traces Hide’s every wrong turn in a 10-year journey to the bottom. The title ought to be “The Lost Decade.”

The film’s timeline starts in 1999 and ends in 2009, but most of its characters and story have little specifically of the noughties about them. Hide, in particular, acts out alky stereotypes from “The Lost Weekend” (1945) on, while his fretful mom (Miyoko Asada), worried dad (Takashi Kobayashi), resentful sister (Reina Asami) and angry best pal (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) are familiar sorts from many a movie and drama of any era you could name.

One sort-of-girlfriend of Hide’s — the bright, fearsomely ambitious Yuki (Yuri Nakamura) — exemplifies the decade’s go-go early years when she drops out of college to become a day trader in Tokyo, but her later conversion to a creepy religious cult feels like a 1990s throwback.

Meanwhile, Hide fitfully tries to do the normal thing, taking a job with an electronics retailer and dating the nice, bright, infinitely patient Shoko (Miho Shiraishi), but he can’t stay away from the sauce — or forget about Gakuko. Then, when he is about to hit 30, he learns she is living alone, after surviving an accident that left her with one arm.

I won’t say how their reunion works out — but I will note that, to play the 37-year-old Gakuko, Uchida dons a gray-haired wig that makes her look at least a decade older. Of course, by this time the gaunt-eyed Hide is no spring chicken either, but the old-before-her- time look reinforces certain stereotypes here about women in their 30s.

Thankfully, Gakuko casually blows them away, while performing minor one-handed miracles — but despite her welcome presence, the third act feels elegiac and enervated, as though the principals were washed out from partying too hard the night before (or slogging through the film’s long, draggy middle section).

Kaneko, who is best known abroad for his entries in the “Gamera” and “Gojira (Godzilla)” series, as well as the first two of the three “Death Note” films, creates intense moments and striking images — such as the shot of Gakuko perched high on a tree branch, looking down like a guardian angel at Hide, who is happily sitting in a rushing stream. But his attempts to shape and propel the unwieldy narrative are heavy-handed and forced.

I doubt, though, that even Godzilla could jolt Hide out of his morosely sodden existence — and the movie into a semblance of life.