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Veteran scriptwriter Haruhiko Arai spent three decades trying to adapt Yuichi Takai’s 1983 novel “Kono Kuni no Sora” (“This Country’s Sky”) for the screen — and the wait was worth it.

The film, about a 19-year-old girl’s awakening to love and life in the closing days of World War II, has the dark honesty and erotic intensity found in Arai’s best scripts, including the trio of acclaimed films he wrote for Ryuichi Hiroki: “Vibrator” (2003), “Yawarakai Seikatsu” (“It’s Only Talk”) (2005) and “Sayonara Kabukicho” (“Kabukicho Love Hotel”) (2014).

But Arai, who has directed only one other film, also drew inspiration from “Watashi ga Ichiban Kirei Datta Toki” (“When I was at My Most Beautiful”), a 1958 poem by Noriko Ibaragi that his heroine, Satoko (Fumi Nikaido), reads over the closing credits. It is a key to understanding this character, who is mature beyond her years but has yet to taste much of life other than war’s privations, restrictions and terrors.

This Country's Sky (Kono Kuni no Sora)
Rating
Run Time 130 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

The poem is an eloquently sad and angry lament for a youth wasted in that war. But as the film begins, Satoko, who is living in a Tokyo suburb with her mother (Yuki Kudo), looks more exhausted than enraged. That is also a fair description of everyone she encounters, including Ichige (Hiroki Hasegawa), a languid, lanky bank employee who lives next door.

With his wife and child evacuated to the countryside, 38-year-old Ichige is lonely and he welcomes Satoko’s visits. When she asks him why he isn’t in the army, he tells her that he failed the draft exam. Given his age, he’s unlikely to be called up.

In more peaceful times, with younger, eligible men about, Satoko would have probably kept her distance from Ichige, for all his soulful violin playing and longing looks. But this is war, with B-29s filling the sky nightly and dropping deadly incendiary bombs that looks like fireworks as they descend (one of the film’s more haunting images).

When Satoko says she may die without experiencing love, she is being a hard-eyed realist rather than a teenage romantic — and Ichige is the only non-elderly man around.

It’s obvious where the story is going, starting from a walk Satoko and Ichige take in the rain under the same umbrella. What is not obvious, however, is Arai’s discursive, naturalistic way of telling it.

The sudden arrival of Satoko’s aunt (Yasuko Tomita), who survived a bombing that wiped out her family, precipitates a crisis. Satoko and Ichige’s budding friendship takes second place to the urgent problem of an additional mouth to feed. Satoko steps in as mediator when her mother threatens to kick the aunt out of the house, while stepping up her search for food.

Despite the obstacles placed in its way, Satoko and Ichige’s simmering mutual attraction flares up into something more, but what is it exactly? True love?

As Satoko, Nikaido is nothing like the teen heroines of local romantic dramas. Instead of rushing into her older lover’s arms, she submits warily. She wants this man, but has few illusions about a happy ending to their affair — especially after he reveals his true, contemptible self.

As in her other films, most notably last year’s “Hotori no Sakuko” (“Au revoir l’ ete”), Nikaido says more with her big, watchful eyes than most actresses can with their entire performances (or, for that matter, than Arai can with his script’s somewhat stagey dialogue).

Nikaido is sometimes compared to actress Hideko Takamine, the great muse of postwar master Mikio Naruse. Arai reportedly gave films by Naruse starring Takamine to Nikaido for her to watch as references. From the evidence on-screen, Nikaido has channeled Takamine’s total commitment and her coiled power that can explode, like those thousands of sparkling bombs, into tragedy.

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