Based on a novel by Kazuki Sakuraba, Kazuyoshi Kumakiri’s “Watashi no Otoko (My Man)” is described as a film about forbidden love, which immediately raises the question of what, if anything, is “forbidden” in this day and age.

In Kumakiri’s other films — such as last year’s “Natsu no Owari (Summer’s End),” with its classic love-triangle story, and 2010’s “Kaitanshi Jokei (Sketches of Kaitan City),” with its characters on the edge of ruin, violence or death — the director examines people living on the margins of society and at emotional extremes. This time, however, he has found a story that truly lives up to its “taboo” hype: A middle-aged man (Tadanobu Asano) makes a lover of the orphaned girl (Fumi Nikaido) he has been raising as a daughter.

Another example of the passions such a pairing can arouse is Stanley Kubrick’s “Lolita,” a 1962 film based on Vladimir Nabokov’s 1955 novel that depicts a mature man’s infatuation with a pubescent girl (aged 12 in the novel and 14 in the movie). The film left out nearly all the novel’s eroticism to appease the censors (though the ones in the U.K. still gave the film an X rating). Given the climate today, it’s hard to imagine anyone venturing a remake.

Watashi no Otoko (My Man)
Director Kazuyoshi Kumakiri
Run Time 129 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Kubrick’s film, so daring for its time, now looks defanged compared to Kumakiri’s. In contrast to the earlier work’s blackly comic view of its bumbling hero’s sexuality, “My Man” shows hot caresses and kisses, and a surreal bed scene in which the lovers are drenched in a rain of blood, expressing their forbidden passion and inseparable connection. This sort of thing was, frankly, hard to watch — or rather, to stomach. As the taciturn Jungo (Asano) planted his meaty paw on the breast of his schoolgirl ward, Hana (Nikaido), and slowly, possessively fondled it, I felt simple anger and disgust, which admittedly clouded my reading of Kumakiri’s intent.

Is there an aim beyond twisted exploitation? I believe there is; however, Kumakiri and scriptwriter Takashi Ujita confusingly shift the focus of the film, while eliding needed explanations of various mysteries, including the damaging effect this incestuous bond has had on Hana’s soul — damage that is shown vividly in Nikaido’s performance, if not verbally expressed or explained.

The film begins with Hana as a child, weaving, in a daze, past bodies and debris — the results of an earthquake and tsunami on an island near Hokkaido. Both her parents have perished in the disaster and a distant relative, Jungo, volunteers to take her in. “You’re mine now,” he says, grasping her hand.

The scene shifts and Hana is now a bubbly junior high school student with a strange air of secrecy. She also has a rival in Komachi (Aoba Kawai), a clerk at a local bank who is Jungo’s lover and the granddaughter of Oshio (Tatsuya Fuji), a town elder. In the normal course of events, Jungo and Komachi would marry and Hana would have the semblance of a family again. But, by this time, Jungo and Hana’s relationship has become abnormal indeed, and Hana sees Komachi as a threat to the closed little world she and Jungo share.

In boldly making her claim to this man, who once possessed her and is now possessed by her — beyond morals or reason — she inadvertently makes both Komachi and Oshio aware of what is going behind their father-daughter facade. During the resulting uproar, she and Jungo escape seeking new lives in Tokyo, if not peace. Instead, Jungo declines into alcoholism and inertia, as Hana grows into independence and apparent indifference. Then a visitor from their past arrives, upsetting the fragile equilibrium of their existence.

Nikaido’s performance as Hana is a tour de force. Her transition from an abused, fiercely loyal schoolgirl to a poised, emotionally distant woman goes beyond outer appearances to an inner world precisely felt and vividly expressed. Where another actor would fall back on stock expressions, Nikaido is always completely and uniquely Hana, beginning with a coolly appraising gaze that speaks volumes about her disconnection from others and the pain of her wounded inner core.

Meanwhile, Asano plays the latest in a long line of characters who are both sensitive and explosive, behind their stolid masks. He does not try to soften Jungo’s perversity, while somehow making him less than despicable. Whatever his initial motives, Jungo does care for Hana and becomes, in his isolation from the rest of humanity, dependent on her. Can you sympathize with this particular devil, locked in the chains forged by himself — or rather, by his demons?

Fun fact: “My Man” has been popular with festival programmers, with invitations from the Moscow International Film Festival and New York Asian Film Festival, among others. Also, Fumi Nikaido will receive a Rising Star Award at the NYAFF.

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