The moral universe of most commercial films is simple: The good guys prevail, the bad guys are punished — and we are seldom in doubt as to who is who. But what if the bad guys deserve sympathy, even the ones who commit horrific crimes? Is that, in a movie world that prefers black and white to gray, even possible?

Keisuke Yoshida unhesitatingly answers “yes” in his new film “Himeanole,” which had its world premiere at last month’s Udine Far East Film Festival in Italy. This is uncommon indeed in Hollywood, where characters who cross over to the dark side are typically targeted for spectacularly fatal retribution, not commiseration. But Yoshida, who wrote the script based on Minoru Furuya’s alternative manga of the same title, questions whether “choice” exists when the strong crush the weak — and the weak go homicidally mad.

“Himeanole” begins, however, as a smart observational comedy about two loners on society’s margins, similar to Yoshida’s criminally under-appreciated 2013 “The Workhorse and the Big Mouth” (“Bashauma-san to Biggu Mausu”). One is Okada (Gaku Hamada), a wishy-washy, if decent and sensitive, guy working as a building cleaner. The other is his pudgy, wild-haired colleague Ando (Tsuyoshi Muro), who speaks robotically but honestly. He is, he tells Okada, in love with Yuka (Aimi Satsukawa), a cute server at a nearby coffee shop, but has yet to breathe a word of his feelings to her.

Himeanole (Himeanoru)
Run Time 99 mins;
Language Japanese
Opens MAY 28

When Okada goes with Ando to see Yuka for himself, he tells his co-worker upfront that “She’s too young and pretty for you.” Ando, however, is not to be deterred and, with Okada’s reluctant assistance, makes Yuka’s acquaintance. But a double date with Yuka and her sharp-tongued friend goes sour when the latter promptly sizes up Okada and Ando as losers.

So far, so funny, as scene after crisply directed scene unfolds with a winning combination of warmth and bite. But Ando becomes convinced that a brooding, blonde-haired coffee-shop patron is stalking Yuka. When Okada recognizes him as Morita (J-pop mega-group V-6 member Go Morita), a former high school classmate, at Ando’s urging, he timidly approaches him.

Here is where the film makes a sharp, if well-prepared, turn from light comedy to dark psychodrama. Gaunt-faced and scarily intense, Morita is revealed as not just a rival for Yuka’s affections but a dangerously deranged serial killer. And Okada, who was once Morita’s only friend, witnessed the merciless bullying that pushed him over the edge.

Some viewers may feel upset or betrayed by this abrupt turn of events — and I can’t entirely blame them, though its aim is not surface shock. Instead it develops organically, if unconventionally, from the film’s central theme: Human beings are capable of both good and evil, and crossing the line from the former to the latter can be more a matter of fate than choice.

This is not to say that Morita is simply to be pitied. His crimes are appalling — and the film thoroughly deserves its R-15 rating for its graphic portrayals of his sexual and homicidal violence. Go Morita also deserves praise for breaking so decisively — and shockingly — with his one-time boy-band singer image.

But the film also shows another, more human side to Morita’s character — which makes the inhuman treatment he was subjected to at the hands of his classmates all the more unforgivable. In crushing the weak, they created a monster.

And Okada’s sin? Silence, in the name of survival. But, as the always excellent Hamada shows in another finely calibrated performance, he is not entirely contemptible. Instead, Okada finds love and, within himself, unexpected courage and compassion.

That doesn’t make him a saint — but, for most of us, it’s good enough.

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