Amnesia is one of those medical conditions that might have been invented for the movies. For scriptwriters, it’s a godsend — one bump on the hero’s head and the story is rolling.

What the movies usually don’t get right are the real-life consequences of a massive head trauma wiping out a large chunk of your mental hard drive: a crippling diminishment of self that, if permanent, is tragic.

Nobuhiro Yamashita’s new film “Misono Universe (La La La at Rock Bottom)” gives an affecting spin to the amnesia theme, but one with more hard-driving rock music than heavy-going drama. One reference is Yamashita’s 2005 film “Linda Linda Linda,” which followed the fortunes of an all-girl amateur band to their big gig at a high school festival. Both their title tune, a catchy 1987 hit by The Blue Hearts, and Korean actress Bae Doona’s energetic rendition of it in the film’s climax, made “Linda Linda Linda” a feel-good international festival favorite.

Misono Universe (La La La at Rock Bottom)
Director Nobuhiro Yamashita
Run Time 103 minutes
Language Japanese
Opens Feb. 14

“La La La At Rock Bottom” is also less of an art film than entertainment (the silly sounding English title is a giveaway), starring Subaru Shibutani of the Kansai-based boy band Kanjani Eight. But instead of the expected pop confection, the film is a sharp-edged character study set on society’s margins, with a comic undertone that at times bubbles into slapstick farce and at other times disappears entirely. It’s not hard to see where the film is going, but the emotional payoffs are genuinely earned rather than formulaically calculated.

The story begins with a live concert by a group of middle-aged rock/soul musicians (played by members of the real-life Osaka band Akainu) that is rudely interrupted by a skinny, beat-up-looking guy who stumbles onto the stage and grabs the microphone. What ensues is a surprisingly powerful a capella song, followed by the mysterious singer collapsing like a felled tree. When he comes to, under the ministrations of the band’s no-nonsense young manager, Kasumi (Fumi Nikaido), he has no memory of anything — including his name — save the lyrics to the song he had just sung.

Nonetheless, with Kasumi’s approval and encouragement, he becomes the group’s new lead singer, acquiring the nickname “Pooch” and a new residence in the house of Kasumi’s senile grandfather. But as his past starts to invade his present, we see that Pooch, for all his singing talent, is an unquiet soul — “I might be dangerous,” he tells Kasumi.

She discovers just how dangerous when she begins to investigate his identity — and Pooch suddenly recovers his memory. Kasumi finds herself with more on her hands than an unreliable lead singer, while Pooch turns out to be as skilled with his fists as his vocal chords. But how can he fight his way back into what’s left of his family, and out of the underworld that nearly claimed his life and mind?

Twenty-year-old Nikaido has earned shelf-loads of prizes for her work in such films as “Watashi no Otoko (My Man)” and “Hotori no Sakuko (Au Revoir l’Ete).” As Kasumi she is all-business, with a furrowed-brow earnestness that comically contrasts with her laid-back ojisan (middle-aged guy) bandmates. But she also radiates an aching emptiness that echoes Pooch’s own, if manifested in quite different ways.

Box-office logic calls for the budding of romance between Kasumi and Pooch, but Yamashita is after something harder: a drama about the fraught process of human connection and redemption following traumas and losses that seem to destroy human trust.

He is greatly aided by Shibutani’s coiled, stripped-down performance as Pooch, free of pop-idol grandstanding. I was reminded of the dying Shoji Kaneko’s indelible portrayal of a petty gangster in the 1983 genre masterpiece “Ryuji.” Both Kaneko and Shibutani portray end-of-tether men with a lived authenticity that makes the usual gangster movie hero, however swaggeringly cool, look completely fake. And Shibutani can ferociously rock, with or without the ojisan backup.

What is the “Misono Universe” of the Japanese title? “Misono” refers to a 1955-vintage building that has become an Osaka landmark. Universe is a club in the building that hosts live bands and is the setting for much of the film’s action. Time for a pilgrimage.

Fun fact: Akainu — whose members star in “Misono Universe (La La La At Rock Bottom)” — is a 14-member big band, started in Osaka in 1993, that performs in a variety of genres with a retro/comedy touch. Among their film credits are Yuki Tanada’s 2008 hit road movie “Hyakumanen to Nigamushi Onna (One Million Yen Girl).”

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.