“Opposites attract” is one of those truisms easy to dismiss — until they turn out to be true. Take the sensitive, arty beta-male guy whose sensitive, arty female soulmate ends up with an alpha-male cowboy — or the nearest urban equivalent. Also, the attraction of opposites is not always mutual: Would that famous, talented beauty you ask to pose with average-Jane you for a selfie ever ask you to do the same? Maybe not.

The central relationship in Natsuka Kusano’s debut feature “Rasen Ginga (Antonym)” seems to fit the latter template. Aya (Yuri Ishizaka) is one of those fashionable women who exude arrogance even when strap-hanging on the morning commute. Meanwhile, her co-worker Sachiko (Asami Shibuya) is a gawky introvert who is perpetually apologizing for her existence. Sachiko admires Aya for her ambition to become a scriptwriter, though she is only attending a night class. Aya, who has yet to sell any of her scripts, reacts to Sachiko’s praise with barely disguised scorn.

The winner of the Nippon Visions Award at last year’s Nippon Connection film festival (which this writer co-presented as a jury member), the aptly titled “Antonym” may sound like a clash-of-opposites comedy, but it tells its story with a completely straight face. The result is a fresh, incisive take on a common if little-filmed type of relationship, especially in hierarchy-loving Japan.

Antonym (Rasen Ginga)
Run Time 73 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Sept. 26

Sachiko’s attraction to Aya may at first seem sexual, but I was reminded more of the relationship between the otokoyaku (male role) stars of the all-female Takarazuka theater troupe and their devoted female fans, who fantasize about the stars as romantic ideals, not possible real-life lovers. Similarly, Sachiko is thrilled when Aya asks her for help, but has no discernible longing to jump into bed with her.

Meanwhile, Aya’s motivation is purely selfish. Her writing class teacher chose her script “Antonym” for a radio performance, with one condition: She must find a co-writer to help her revise it. Her present script, he tells her in front of the entire class, is a deeply flawed testimony to her egocentric view of humanity.

Offended, but fearing he might be right, Aya asks Sachiko to pose as a manga-artist pal who has volunteered to be her collaborator. Sachiko agrees, but offers apt suggestions instead of the expected silence. This mouse, we see, has a voice, if not a roar. But she has to persuade the proud Aya to listen.

In “Radio no Jikan” (“Welcome Back, Mr. McDonald”) (1997), another film about a neophyte scriptwriter given a radio debut, scriptwriter/director Koki Mitani mercilessly turned his heroine’s hopes into dust — and comic gold. Kusano, who made “Antonym” with a grant from the Cineastes Osaka Project CO2 (and not coincidentally, set it in her benefactor’s city), opts instead for soul-baring character revelations, while developing the dynamic between Aya and Sachiko in ways that surprise as well as persuade.

Many films deal with female relationships, but “Antonym” does something I hadn’t seen before: show how a relationship between two women that begins as artificial and unequal blossoms into a true partnership, if not quite a friendship.

The film accomplishes this unusual transition with a quiet lyricism, shown in its repeated night shots of a colorfully inviting laundromat that Sachiko uses as a kind of retreat. And it concludes with a performance of Aya’s script that brilliantly illuminates the bond between its protagonists and the ways each has changed.

As Sachiko, Shibuya has the tougher of the two roles, for reasons hard to detail without giving too much away. But she accomplishes her makeover from socially inept ugly duckling with none of the usual props. Instead of tossing away her glasses, Sachiko begins to glow with a confidence that’s innately attractive.

“Smile is the best make-up” goes an old beauty-school slogan. I’d say that talent — and knowing you have it — runs it a close second.

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.