Sleep is the great restorer, one we frazzled moderns eternally need, desire and lack. But for Terako (Sakura Ando), the sleepy-eyed heroine of photographer and director Shingo Wakagi’s “Shirakawa Yofune” (“Asleep”), the bedroom is a battleground of the spirit.

She sleeps and sleeps in her skivvies under a silky white futon, waiting for a buzz on her cellphone from her married middle-aged lover, Iwanaga (Arata Iura), who likes her to be at his beck and call. True rest, however, remains elusive, while strange dreams beckon.

Based on Banana Yoshimoto’s 1989 novel of the same name, Wakagi’s film seems to be a cinematic memoir of one woman’s bout with depression — of which over-sleeping is a classic symptom. Terako is not only involved in an illicit affair, but also mourning the suicide of her close friend Shiori (Mitsuki Tanimura), whose unusual occupation was sleeping with strangers — without sex — for pay.

Asleep (Shirakawa Yofune)
Run Time 91 mins
Language Japanese
Opens April 25

But the story isn’t quite so simple. Terako isn’t sure she wants to break up with Iwanaga, and he frolics with her in rented rooms while his wife lies in a vegetative state after a traffic accident, which makes him, by Terako’s own description, a cold-blooded cad. But there’s something about him she finds attractive and doesn’t try to analyze closely. She just enjoys being with him, in and out of bed, even as she constantly probes him about his relationship with his wife.

This story of star-crossed lovers could have easily descended into the sort of drama Japanese call “doro doro,” meaning “muddy” or, more aptly, “turgid.” Wakagi, however, films his interiors with cool whites and warm reds rather than murky doro doro browns, and he lightens the film’s emotional palette with flirty, even sexy, moments. Working with co-scriptwriter Kai Suzumoto, he highlights the ambiguous, conflicted nature of his central couple’s affair with everything from a romantic, if frigid, walk on a winter beach (especially chilly for bare-footed Terako) to her dream — if it is a dream — of encountering Iwanaga’s wife as a lithe, mysterious teenager.

Wakagi adds another, deeper dimension to the story through flashbacks to Terako’s friendship with the troubled Shiori, who is always smiling but acutely aware. “For people like (Iwanaga),” she tells Terako, “if something is not formally declared, it doesn’t exist.”

Why does Shiori end it all? One indication is that she takes her job all too seriously, trying to stay alert till morning so her customers will have a welcoming presence when they wake up during the night, as they inevitably do. After helping so many achieve blissful oblivion, she finally seeks it for herself, but with no chance for another troubled dawn.

The film’s most entrancing mystery, however, is Terako, who in Ando’s multi-faceted performance is neither the sadly clinging “other woman” of local melodramas nor the easy-going extracurricular playmate of male fantasies.

Instead, she swings from coy confidence in her power over an older lover to foot-stomping frustration with her life, including a deep-rooted exhaustion that is slowly dragging her under.

Nonetheless, there’s something retro in the film’s framing of Terako as a sort of kept woman who lounges about her tiny spotless apartment in the near-altogether without attempting anything that resembles gainful employment.

The most glaring giveaway that the film’s story was written a quarter of a century ago, however, is the absence of digital communication between the leads. They spend what today feels like lavish amounts of time hanging out with each other or, in Terako’s case, simply lying in. Depressed or not, her enjoyment of analog-era leisure is hard not to envy. And Wakagi’s film, though dreamy, is no snore-fest. Much like Shiori’s touch, it gently, artfully awakens us to the endlessly transforming, finally ungraspable nature of Eros.

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