“Danchi” doesn’t translate easily into English. “Apartment complex” or “housing estate” are only rough equivalents for the thousands of public-housing units thrown up in the postwar boom years to cope with Tokyo’s exploding population. Equipped with running water, flush toilets and other amenities, with stores and schools close by, danchi symbolized middle-class prosperity for escapees from hardscrabble lives in the countryside. But today Showa Era (1926-1989) danchi, with their tiny rooms, lack of elevators and general air of decrepitude, are relics of another time, with a shrinking, mostly elderly resident population.
A quirky counter to this depressing reality is “Danchi,” veteran Junji Sakamoto’s fantasy/comedy that unfolds in one such complex that seems set in a Showa time warp in his native Osaka.
True, most of the film’s characters, beginning with the feisty Hinako Yamashita (Naomi Fujiyama) and her retired hubby, Seiji (Ittoku Kishibe), are middle-aged or older. But the danchi where the Yamashitas have recently moved is still a bustling place, with gaggles of gossiping housewives and a blustery residents’ association president, Shozo (Renji Ishibashi), and his chirpy wife, Kimiko (Michiyo Okusu), doing their interfering best to keep the danchi wa (harmony) intact.
The film’s throwback characters, situations and atmospherics are not just for the oldies in the audience; they serve to distance the action from reality, in preparation for a dramatic shift to — let’s just say a jaw-dropper of a climax.
In its opening scenes, “Danchi” is just another in a long line of heart-warming Japanese comedies about likable off-kilter folks.
Seiji was once a maker and seller of traditional Chinese medicine, but closed his shop half a year ago and moved with Hinako to the danchi. One day, however, Hinako spies an old customer from her third-floor veranda: Mr. Shinjo (Takumi Saito), an eccentric young man who speaks broken Japanese with an odd formality, like an android with faulty programming.
Shinjo wants a kind of medicine he insists only Seiji can make, and the old man, who has supplies stored under the floorboards, gladly accepts his order. It’s not that he needs the money — Hinako works part time as a cashier at a neighborhood supermarket, though she is scolded by the manager for chatting with an elderly acquaintance (Akaji Maro).
All mildly amusing, until the story takes a sharp turn to the strange. Seiji is humiliatingly defeated in an election for president by the incumbent Shozo and becomes a shut-in out of embarrassment, hiding in the storage area under the floor whenever company calls. After two months pass, danchi gossips spread the rumor that he has been murdered — and that Rinako is the killer.
Based on Sakamoto’s original script, the ensuing contretemps has its laugh-out-loud moments, but a serious purpose as well. Finding herself a danchi pariah, average-housewife Rinako rebels against the unfairness of it all. Her resistance is not only refreshing, but sets the stage for dramatic developments, especially after Shinjo offers her and Seiji the ultimate escape.
The star of Sakamoto’s award-winning 2000 indie drama “Face” (“Kao”), Fujiyama returns to the screen after a 16-year gap still a vital, distinctive presence. As Rinako, this stage veteran is typically middle-aged in everything from her plus-size figure to her dress-for-comfort fashion sense, but her indefatigable energy and stubborn individuality conquer all — including the film’s tired sitcom tropes.
An uncompromising outsider drama, “Face” was a stronger film, but in “Danchi” Fujiyama single-handedly lifts the surreal climax to a higher, more inspiring level. Her everywoman is a human miracle.