Pushing a food-and-drinks cart on an express train used to be a something of a glamour job for young Japanese women (or something of a comedown if they aspired to be flight attendants).

The Odakyu Romance Car, which debuted in 1957, is one such express train. It travels between Tokyo and Hakone, the mountain resort that has been drawing foreign visitors for generations with its hot springs and promise (though often unfulfilled) of spectacular Mount Fuji views from nearby Lake Ashi.

Hachiko Hojo (Yuko Oshima), the heroine of Yuki Tanada’s “Romansu” (“Round Trip Heart”), is one such cart pusher, dressed in a spiffy uniform and spreading good cheer. She may be little more than an ambulatory convenience store clerk to passengers, but to a bumbling junior colleague (Yoshimi Nozaki), Hachiko is a no-nonsense veteran and a fount of job-survival wisdom.

Round Trip Heart (Romansu)
Run Time 97 mins
Language Japanese
Opens AUG. 29

Hachiko’s smooth daily routine hits a bump when a lanky, goofy-looking passenger pilfers a box of snacks from her cart. She tries to turn him in to station authorities, but he makes his escape and an angry Hachiko gives spirited chase. To shorten a rather incredible story (scripted by Tanada), pursuer and pursued finally call an exhausted truce and embark on a journey together to find Hachiko’s long-lost mom, who has written her a heartfelt letter suggesting that she might commit suicide.

Tanada, who last filmed her own script for the charming 2008 road movie “Hyakuman-en to Nigamushi Onna” (“One Million Yen Girl”), tests audience sympathy with this sudden shift of focus, especially given that the shoplifter, Sakuraba (Koji Okura), is that least empathetic of types: a failing movie producer.

Cue the direction of the film shifting toward either labored opposites-attract rom-com or formulaic comedy about two lost souls discovering their respective grooves. But “Round Trip Heart” instead finds a mostly happy middle ground between these two dire extremes. Yes, Hachiko tenderly recalls a long-ago family trip to Hakone, before her flighty, fun-loving mom (Megumi Nishimuta) broke up with her dad. And Sakuraba, who at first noisily denies wrong-doing and proclaims himself a big wheel, reveals his more believable (and pathetic) human side in the course of their adventure.

But rather than milk this material for sighs and tears, the film is realistic, and stays dry-eyed about its two principals — including their chances for romance. The 26-year-old Hachiko, for example, keeps calling 41-year-old Sakuraba by the lightly insulting term “ossan” (“old man”) despite his protests. Coming from an ultra-polite Romance Car attendant this is funny, as well as indicative of her determination to maintain an assured clear distance from her ickily amorous traveling companion.

Playing Hachiko, Yuko Oshima reveals a talent for comedy and drama that may surprise fans who know her only from her stint with the AKB48 idol group, but not those who saw her turn as an ethically challenged bank clerk in Daihachi Yoshida’s “Kami no Tsuki” (“Pale Moon”) from 2014, a performance that won her several prizes for best supporting actress. She more than holds her own with co-star Okura, though this veteran has a far longer string of film and TV credits — and a habit of stealing scenes.

Also, Tanada’s film entertainingly reflects a fundamental truth: Strangers may bond on the road, but their personalities — and problems — remain the same when they part.

Hachiko nostalgically croons “Ii Hi Tabidachi” (“Departure on a Fine Day”), Momoe Yamaguchi’s 1978 hit about a life-changing journey that was her mother’s karaoke favorite, but she also longs to return to the rails — and the Romance Car waits for no one.

Can she get back on track? The answer is well worth the ride to the final stop.

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.

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