Shinji Aoyama might be described as a Japanese arthouse version of Quentin Tarantino: A smart, dedicated cinephile who works his influences into his films while experimenting with various genres, from the gangster film (“Chinpira,” 1996) to mystery (“Lakeside Murder Case,” 2004). But whereas Tarantino’s films are cool in the ironic, in-your-face, extroverted American sense, much of Aoyama’s work is cool in the distanced, oblique, introverted Japanese way.

The ultimate example is “Eureka,” winner of the Cannes Jury Prize in 2000, whose drama about survivors of a bus hijack trying to heal their wounded spirits was filmed in gorgeous black and white with sparse dialog, long shots and austerely elegant compositions.

Now Aoyama is back after a four-year absence from the big screen with the mystery drama “Tokyo Koen” (“Tokyo Park”), and what seems to be a new outlook and approach: puckishly surreal, narratively diffuse and limpidly transcendent. It’s somewhat as if Tarantino broke a long silence to make a homage to Terrence “The Tree of Life” Malick.

Tokyo Koen (Tokyo Park)
Director Shinji Aoyama
Run Time 119 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now Showing

Based on a novel by Yukiya Shoji, “Tokyo Park” is typically Aoyama in its deeper concerns, from the essential isolation of human beings that hinders true communication to the mysteriousness of the forces that govern our loves — and lusts. But in many scenes its tone is light, playful and even serene — three adjectives I thought I’d never use in an Aoyama film review.

His college student hero, Koji (Haruma Miura), is busy snapping photos of mothers and children in a park one day when he is rudely interrupted by an agitated man (Yo Takahashi) with an unusual request: Follow his lovely wife (Haruka Igawa) and baby daughter as they make their rounds of Tokyo parks. The man, a prosperous (from the look of his waiting room) dentist, suspects the park visits may be a cover for hanky-panky. Koji, tempted by the wad of bills pressed into his hand, agrees to be his snoop.

But just as the film begins to settle into a mystery groove (suspicious husband plus secret lover equals dead body?), it takes another turn entirely. Back at Koji’s roomy if cluttered digs, which he shares with his impish roommate, Hiro (Shota Sometani), he receives frequent visits from Hiro’s former girlfriend, Tominaga (Nana Eikura), a perky, chatty, flirty type with an interest in horror movies and, as becomes clear, Koji.

Tominaga also shows up at the bar where Koji works for a friendly gay boss (Takashi Ukaji), as does Misaki (Manami Konishi), Koji’s sophisticated older step-sister. Observing the banter between the siblings, the canny Tominaga notices something that has escaped the easygoing Koji: Big sis has a crush on him too.

How does all this tie into Koji’s park detective work? During the film’s long, diffuse middle stretch, it doesn’t, really. Also, it soon becomes obvious that the suspect Koji is diligently tailing and snapping has no lover stashed behind a bush. Beaming her calm, radiant smile at her daughter and the world at large, she is a kind of universal mother figure, and Koji, as Tominaga astutely notes, has a “mother complex.”

As Koji, Miura is anything but the typical movie mama’s boy, however. In addition to his smoldering good looks, which wreaked havoc among female fans in the 2007 romantic drama “Koizora” (“Sky of Love”), his breakthrough hit, Miura has an aura of fires burning within. He could blow the film wide open, as Tadanobu Asano’s wild-hearted yakuza hero did so memorably in “Helpless,” Aoyama’s 1996 theatrical debut.

Instead, he plays Koji as an amiable, passive empty slate on which the more aggressive, knowing types around him can write their own dramas, though he can at times seize hold of the pen.

Just when the film is about to disappear up its own somewhat thin conceits, however, it springs to life with revelatory scenes, from the sexual to the spiritual, that lead to a climax unexpected of Aoyama. To put it simply and without spoilers, he achieves a sort of Malickian grace.

Is “Tokyo Park” a real change of direction for Aoyama, or simply a break, like a pleasant sit on a park bench? Given his past ambition to emulate his directorial heroes and surpass his peers (including José Luis Guerín, whose 2007 feature, “In the City of Sylvia,” was an inspiration for “Tokyo Park”), I am tempted to say the latter. But people, as the film reminds us with ungainly flashes of fantasy and humor, can surprise us. And Aoyama is at a stage of life when parks, not crime scenes, start to look attractive indeed.

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