Film / Reviews

Girls take charge of their love lives in ‘Chigasaki Story’

by Mark Schilling

Special To The Japan Times

Koji Fukada’s 2013 beach film “Hotori no Sakuko” (“Au Revoir l’Ete”) was a loving homage to French master Eric Rohmer, with lengthy European-style vacations bestowed on Fukada’s Japanese protagonists.

The film’s production company, Wa Entertainment, has now made another Rohmer-esque ensemble drama, “San-paku Yokka Go-ji no Kane” (“Chigasaki Story”), but as indicated in the Japanese title — which translates roughly as “Three Nights, Four Days, Five O’clock Bell”) — one more in tune with local realities.

Workmates Karin (Ena Koshino) and Maki (Kiki Sugino) have come to the beach resort of Chigasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, to attend the wedding party of Risa (Natsuko Hori), a former colleague who is now helping run her family’s 115-year-old inn.

As indicated by the film’s Japanese title, their holiday is typically brief. Even so, much transpires in the course of their four-day break, which is marked with the daily 5 p.m. blaring of the folk song “Aka Tombo” (“Red Dragonfly”) from a loudspeaker. But as the film’s romantic roundelay unfolded, accompanied by comic bits and catchy old-time jazz, I began to think “Chigasaki Story” was channeling not only Rohmer, but also Woody Allen in his lighter moods.

Scripted and directed by first-timer Takuya Misawa, a Chigasaki native who worked as an assistant on two films directed by frequent Wa Entertainment collaborator Sugino, “Chigasaki Story” is more than the sum of its winking gags. In everything from the setting — an old-fashioned inn used by Yasujiro Ozu to script eight of his films — to the erotic tensions roiling beneath the smiling surface, the film aims more for actuality than frothy romcom artifice.

Soon after she arrives, the free-spirited Karin casually sets out to seduce Tomoharu (Haya Nakazaki), a college boy working at the inn. The older, more conservative Maki sternly disapproves of this flirting, and flies into a rage when Karin impulsively goes for a walk with an unwitting Tomoharu instead of meeting for a planned visit to a local aquarium. But after Maki runs into her former archaeology teacher (Satoshi Nikaido), she signals an interest in this ruggedly handsome guy that goes beyond reliving her now distant college days.

Another complication arrives in the form of Ayako (Juri Fukushima), a sweet-tempered student who has a crush on classmate Tomoharu and is quietly upset by Karin’s transparent (at least to her eyes) designs.

Then there is Kota (Shuntaro Yanagi), Risa’s gangly surfer brother, who can look beyond social niceties to inner realities, and Risa herself, who seems happy as a new wife and innkeeper but shows signs of envying Karin and Maki’s freedom. And her foreign husband is nowhere in sight. As the old Johnny Mercer song says, something’s gotta give.

That it does, though in contrast to the many local movies that regard women as passive objects of male desire, the sexual initiative in “Chigasaki Story” belongs almost solely to its female principals. And though its romantic conflicts initially unfold through significant glances and silent gestures, when emotions erupt, it’s always a woman doing the dishing out. This, I think, is less a feminist statement than the simple truth of how the sexual game is often played here, especially when the quarry is a shy, inexperienced boy or a guy seemingly oblivious to everything but work.

Proactive does not always mean attractive in the film’s beachside bubble: Voices are loudly raised and feelings brutally hurt. For all its Ozu associations, the film has melodramatic moments that Ozu himself would have scripted out.

The moral: If a working woman here wants to spend her 30s with something other than her inbox, she had better take the lead — even if she can only take four days off.