Why not abandon your stressed urban existence, move to a picturesque part of the world and live the simple life? An old dream, but still powerful, as shown by the recent spate of Japanese movies about women getting back their grooves by relocating to a beautiful middle-of-nowhere. Usually their dream has something to do with food or drink and not a lot to do with men. They blend and sell gourmet coffee, like Hiromi Nagasaku in “Saihate nite: Yasashii Kaori to Machinagara” (“The Furthest End Awaits”), or grow organic crops, like Ai Hashimoto in the two-part “Little Forest,” in a sort of splendid isolation.

By contrast, when guys attempt a similar escape, the result is commonly comedic. See Shota Sometani’s bumbling apprentice lumberjack in last year’s “Wood Job!” for a laugh-out-loud example.

Keisuke Toyoshima’s “Umi no Futa” (“Sea’s Lid”), based on a 2006 novel by Banana Yoshimoto, promises more of the generic same. His heroine, the gangly, earnest Mari (Akiko Kikuchi), leaves her job as a stage designer in Tokyo and returns to her hometown: a small port town on the western side of the Izu Peninsula. (The real-life town of Toi, where I vacationed with my family back in the day.) Mari’s dream is to open a small shop selling her favorite childhood treat: kakigōri (shaved ice with flavored syrup).

Sea's Lid (Umi no Futa)
Run Time 84 mins
Language Japanese
Opens July 18

Her kakigōri is not sugared glop for summer tourists, but made from scratch with fresh ingredients, beginning with the raw sugar cane that she laboriously prepares by hand. When Mari opens the shop — after long hours of designing the layout, painting the walls and hauling furniture inside the space — it sells only two types of kakigōri and none with artificial colors. They both look delicious.

This was the point where I started mentally preparing for Mari’s glorious triumph after her inevitable setbacks. But Toyoshima has another reality-based story in mind, and he tells it with a commendable 84-minute precision and a sure, delicate naturalism. He likes his stubborn, idealistic heroine and makes us like her as well, but doesn’t give her any easy outs or feel-good triumphs.

When Mari meets Osamu (Yukichi Kobayashi), a local guy she has known since childhood, she burbles about the lovely scenery and her plans to sell kakigōri. He is openly skeptical about the latter, however, because the town is aging and emptying out. Businesses, including his own sake shop, struggle to survive.

Then Mari’s supportive mom (Orime Amagi) springs a surprise on her in the form of Hajime (Azusa Mine), the teenage daughter of a college friend who has come to stay after the death of her beloved grandmother. In addition to a large burn scar on her cheek, Hajime is dealing with feelings that explode into tears one morning, as a flummoxed Mari looks on. “It’s like a fit coming on,” Hajime coolly explains after her crying jag ends. “Sadness comes like a whirlwind and just as suddenly goes away.”

This girl, we see, has a hard-earned spiritual strength and emotional maturity far beyond her years. She becomes closer to Mari, if not quite a friend, and provides much-needed support as the shop’s only server. But after customers either fail to appear or go away disappointed (one girl bursts into tears when Mari tells her she can’t have her favorite red-colored syrup on her ice), we see that her troubles are far from over.

The film, though, is less about Mari’s commercial trials than her personal growth. Some of its narrative devices are hardly new (Hajime’s sort-of scar has often been used a sympathy-grabbing gimmick), but they are quietly convincing.

And Toi has seldom looked so inviting, though if I ever open a kakigōri stand there, red will be on the menu.

Idealism is wonderful, but business is tough everywhere, even in a seaside paradise.

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.