Film / Reviews

'Kodoku na Wakusei (In a Lonely Planet)'

Will romance stir between neighbors with benefits?

by Mark Schilling

Watching movies is like dreaming with your eyes open. Hardly an original thought, I know. In fact, it’s been a staple of film commentary for nearly a century.

But in Japan, Hollywood and elsewhere, filmmakers have long been using CGI, 3-D and other tech tools to create an artificial hyper-reality on the screen. One aim is to keep audiences awake, but one frequent effect is to make the film more forgettable. The expensively produced shocks and thrills evaporate as you walk out the theater doors. The reason: Your nervous system has been stimulated, but not your unconscious. Your waking dream hasn’t been deep enough.

Takefumi Tsutsui’s romantic drama “Kodoku na Wakusei (In a Lonely Planet),” however, occupies the shifting middle ground between dream and reality that Hollywood has largely abandoned. (David Lynch, of course, has always lived there.)

A veteran indie filmmaker who has also worked as a producer (Makoto Shinozaki’s 1995 masterpiece “Okaeri,” sometimes known overseas as “Welcome Home”) and teacher (Tokyo University of the Arts), Tsutsui tells his story of love gone wrong and strange with a pace and sense of humor somewhat ponderous, if sure. The Hollywood remake will no doubt be sprightlier.

At the same time, I was never in danger of dozing off. Tsutsui uses an array of unusual strategies to unsettle expectations and stir imaginations, from a world map of unexplained purpose and changing design to weird, if entrancing, ambient sounds, like radio signals from an alternative universe (supplied by sound designer Yasuhiro Morinaga).

Also, he leads his trio of characters into situations that violate genre conventions in ways interesting and odd, though he finally brings their story to a conclusion that is not bright with faked hope. Instead, dreamlike, it is open to interpretation.

The first of the three we meet is Mari (Aya Takeko), a tall, stern beauty who works for a small trading company (though for much of the film we see her laboring in a big, empty office alone). She comes home every night to her barely furnished apartment, where she fiddles with pins on the aforementioned map and drinks a solitary beer on her veranda.

One night she finds her handsome, long-haired neighbor disconsolately squatting in the small space between their facing doors. He tells her he has forgotten his key and is waiting for his live-in girlfriend, Arisa (Takayo Mimura), to return. Something clicks between Mari and this next-door stranger named Tetsuo (Go Ayano), though she often hears him and Arisa quarreling through the paper-thin wall that divides the two apartments. Soon she has her ear pressed against that wall, drinking in every angry and loving word.

Then one night Tetsuo rings her doorbell. Arisa has kicked him out, he says — and he needs a place to crash. Reluctantly, if inevitably, Mari invites him in.

If this were a typical love-triangle story, the standoffish Mari, skeptical of love since a former (and far shorter) boyfriend dumped her for his current bride, would soon succumb to the advances of Tetsuo, he of the sensitive doe eyes and wolfish desire. Instead, she pushes him off her bed and tells him he can stay on one condition: He must sleep on the veranda and never set foot inside. He agrees — and soon he is camping out with a sleeping bag and tent Mari thoughtfully provides, communicating with her through a pane of glass.

This is a comedy setup, but the film is not primarily about laughs. Instead it is more of a meditation on modern varieties of loneliness, as well as the love and sex games men and women play. Mari primly shuts out temptation (that is, Tetsuo) but one night coyly pretends to sleep after “forgetting” to close the veranda window latch. At least, that is one interpretation. Perhaps she is simply absent-minded and really unconscious? Tetsuo, wisely, decides not to make his move. Or perhaps he is not as intent on cheating as he seems?

A model who has recently started film acting, Takeko has the right physique (towering) and attitude (mocking) for comically dominating the men around her. But in scenes requiring more emotion, she is stiff, if sincere. Meanwhile, the more experienced and accomplished Ayano (“Crows Zero II,” “Gantz”) maintains a fine balance between Tetsuo’s obvious lust for Mari and his more opaque feelings for her and Arisa. As Arisa, Mimura is required to be little more than hot and hot-tempered, both of which she manages well enough, particularly the former.

“In a Lonely Planet,” though, stands out more for its atmospherics than its character dynamics, such as the wall map that promises change but comes to symbolize its elusiveness. (Mari shifts the map’s pins, but goes nowhere.) And such as the obscure noises and tinkling melodies that wrap the characters in a haze of alienation and nostalgia, whose sources we never see.

What does it all mean? Nothing and everything, like a former lover’s last, lingering kiss that exists only in memory — or dreams.