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Films about elderly men falling for elusive young women (and utimately regretting it) go back to “The Blue Angel” (1930). One Japanese example is Kaneto Shindo’s 1992 “Bokuto Kidan” (“The Strange Tale of Oyuki”), a biopic about writer Kafu Nagai and the prostitute he came to love. Unlike the deluded professor in “Blue Angel,” Nagai (Masahiko Tsugawa) refuses to cling, but he ends up old, alone and poor anyway.

Gakuryu Ishii’s “Mitsu no Aware” (“Bitter Honey”) is similar in origin and arc. Based on a 1959 novel by the then-70-year-old author Saisei Muro, the film centers on an elderly writer (Ren Osugi) in postwar Tokyo that we first see sketching a young woman (Fumi Nikaido) in his big Japanese-style house. Wearing a clingy red dress and calling herself “atai” (a somewhat babyish form of “I” used by girls of the period), she is coquettish and innocent, nubile and naive. That is, a male fantasy figure, but one of a special kind: She is a goldfish in human guise.

Once known for his extreme indie films, including the 1982 punk rock sci-fi “Burst City” (“Bakuretsu Toshi”), Ishii has since become quite a different filmmaker. In “Bitter Honey,” costume designer Kazuhiro Sawataishi’s gorgeous frocks, art director Hisashi Sasaki’s meticulous period details and cinematographer Norimichi Kasamatsu’s beautiful but bold compositions — punctuated by giddy camera swoops and swirls — make for stylish visuals. And Ishii’s approach to this unusual story is in keeping with its look: A shade ironic and a touch voluptuous, as if telling an erotically charged cautionary fable to sophisticates.

Bitter Honey (Mitsu no Aware)
Rating
Run Time 110 mins
Language Japanese
Opens April 1

But as the surreal action unfolds, with winking quotation marks around even the most turbulent scenes, the problems of the writer and his finny pet/muse/lover begin to feel emotionally uninvolving, if somewhat interesting comically. One that surfaces early is Yuriko (Yoko Maki), the writer’s deceased student/lover who returns as a walking, talking ghost in an exquisite kimono. Yuriko comes to be the goldfish girl’s confidant, beginning with an awkward, funny coffee shop conversation. But Yuriko is a lonely, troubled soul and — like most Japanese female ghosts — bent on revenge.

She is also a catalyst who prompts the girl to want a human name (she hits on “Akako Akai” to go with her naturally red akai coloring) and a real relationship with the writer, complete with sex, love and babies. But the writer is allergic to commitment, especially to a goldfish he bought for ¥300 from an enigmatic fish seller (Masatoshi Nagase). He is a voluptuary in love with Akako’s youth and beauty — but not the demanding side of her evolving personality.

Then, when Akako discovers that the writer has a secret lover, another besotted writing student (Hanae Kan), she makes a decision that brings the old roue to his senses, but too late?

Osugi manages the difficult trick of making the writer both contemptible and humanly understandable, which he also pulled off in the thematically similar 2000 film “I Am an S&M Writer” (“Futei no Kisetsu”). As Akako, Nikaido does cute and coy without becoming annoying — a minor miracle. (She also does a great impression of a goldfish.) And as Yuriko, Maki expresses her character’s sad distance from the living, and her conflicted desire to close it, with poignancy and humor.

Even more impressive, if measured by impact per minutes of screen time, is Kengo Kora as the ghost of writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa, a real-life contemporary of Muro’s who died young but still haunts the writer hero with his genius. In the scene of their reunion — Akutagawa with his piercing eyes and harsh truths, the writer with his hopeless dream of greatness — “Bitter Honey” finally achieves pathos, with no quotation marks whatsoever.

For our hero, for any writer who ever lived, reputation is the true aphrodisiac.

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