Film / Reviews

Chihiro Ikeda's 'Tokyo no Hi' is a worthy addition to the slacker genre

by Mark Schilling

Can we please cut the Japanese movie slacker some slack? Usually a guy past the age when most contemporaries have entered official adulthood — defined here as holding a full-time (if not necessarily lifetime) job — the slacker hero makes do with part-time gigs, or spinning his unemployed wheels.

This drifting existence is commonly played for black comedy, though for real-life slackers it’s hardly all fun and games. What’s good about that muzzy post-adolescent state in which possibilities seem limitless but hard choices feel scary?

Such is the situation of Yusuke Honda (Daisuke Sasaki), the 28-year-old hero of Chihiro Ikeda’s “Tokyo no Hi”(literally, “Tokyo Day”). Working as a server in a cafe known for its curry rice, he is still a part-timer — that is, doing the sort of job students take to supplement Mom and Dad’s largesse.

Tokyo no Hi (Tokyo Day)
Run Time 102 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Honda, however, is on his lonesome, with no parental support in sight. For better and worse, he is not unattractive to women, including the cafe’s worldly wise, if emotionally needy, manager (Chizuru Asano) and a sort of girlfriend (Saki Tanaka) he drinks and sleeps with, but can’t commit to. So far our hero is typical enough and, to be honest, annoyingly wishy-washy.

The disruption to his dull life, and the factor that lifts the film above the slacker subgenre run, is Akari (Shuri), a tiny, pixie-faced girl who drags a huge suitcase into the cafe one day and sits there until closing time. Honda tells her to leave but ends up inviting her to crash at his place. She reluctantly accepts, since the alternative is the streets. But days later she is still there, having transformed into an ersatz wife, who does everything for Honda but share his futon.

From this intro, “Tokyo no Hi” may sound like a cute indie rom-com, but Ikeda, who also wrote the script, plays her odd couple’s story entirely straight. The third in a series of dramas about the cafe’s employees — the first two were stage plays — “Tokyo no Hi” is low-key but not low-energy. It’s sensitive to its principals’ dilemmas without sentimentally assuming that their solutions will be easy.

Instead, the film makes a clear-sighted, if wistful, acknowledgement that happy endings are elusive, especially for slacker guys who dither when their romantic lives depend on doing. They are deck-chair arrangers on the Titanic of love. Will Honda remain one to the watery end?

Shuri, who has divided her time between stage, TV and films since her 2011 debut, plays Akari as a figure of mystery, but not an object of male salvation. Though looking like a lost waif, Akari soon proves to be resourceful, landing a job as a hostess in a snack bar owned by the kindly, elderly Michiko (Kyoko Kagawa) and run by the salty, middle-aged Harumi (Makiko Watanabe). And to fend off Honda’s clumsy advances, she tells him she is pregnant, temporarily solving the sex problem.

But Akari also cheerfully makes Honda rice balls, free-spiritedly romps on the roof of their apartment building and sings the old pop song “Nagori Yuki” with a soulfulness that would melt the heart of a stone — which Honda is not. But she also has darkness in her past, as well as desires in her present that Honda can’t fathom and Akari is slow to reveal.

Honda tries to be understanding with her and others who might change the course of his stagnant existence, but deciding seems beyond him. The film symbolizes this state with scenes of Honda sitting blankly on steps near his apartment or circling aimlessly on his bicycle. How sad. How familiar. And how eloquently the film expresses a truth even the Hondas finally have to face: Deck chairs are crappy flotation devices.