The idea of “love” in Japan used to be defined by literature until manga came along and changed the scenery. Now, almost everyone dips into manga to learn the ropes, and often that process starts as early as the first grade. My niece was just 6 years old when she was poring through “Detective Conan” and decided that she would date a childhood sweetheart, even though her childhood was just beginning.
A successful manga series about love almost always spawns a movie and “Bittersweet” is one of the latest in this genre. This rom-com is directed by Shogo Kusano, best known for quirky indie movie “Karappo,” which featured a significant amount of male semi-nudity. We get that again in “Bittersweet,” which marks Kusano’s foray into mainstream Japanese cinema, with a cast to match.
Heart-throb de rigeur Kento Hayashi stars as a gay art teacher at a boys’ high school, and given the frequency with which he bares his torso, he should probably ditch the easel for the swimming pool. Hayashi’s fragile, anime-boy looks hasn’t changed much since his debut 10 years ago, and it suits the story perfectly, which amounts to: No one (of any gender) can resist the charms of Hayashi’s character, Nagisa — even his name is adorably androgynous. Nagisa, however, sports the lofty aura typical of gay manga characters. He’s also a vegetarian foodie who cooks all his own meals.
|Rating||out of 5|
|Run Time||96 mins|
Enter the “career woman,” which is a term still bandied about in Japanese fiction and even used to describe Tokyo’s new governor. Being referred to as such should embarrass the daylights out of Maki (Haruna Kawaguchi) but she’s too busy being busy at the office, and being dumped by a succession of bad boyfriends. Fate (and a local bar) brings Nagisa and Maki together one night, and he winds up sharing her apartment. “Let me tell you right off the bat, I like men and I don’t like women,” stresses Nagisa as Maki drowns her disappointment in multiple cans of beer. Awwww.
Nagisa decides that though he’s not even remotely attracted to this woman, he will be a wonderful friend and help change her life by altering her diet. Out go Maki’s convenience-store bento box meals and energy drinks, and in their place he cooks up delicious quinoa risotto topped with broccoli, brown rice onigiri (rice balls) sprinkled with black sesame seeds and steamed seasonal vegetables. It should be noted that the distributors of this movie are touting it as an “organic love comedy.”
The problem is, Maki hates vegetables to the point of being traumatized. She even had a big fight with her dad and left home because of vegetables. A chunk of the film is devoted to coaxing Maki to eat her greens, as if she were a petulant 4-year-old, and Nagisa discovers the joy of converting a junk-food addict. Like Professor Higgins, he finds that life is pretty dull without an Eliza to boss around and educate about the merits of spinach.
All this works splendidly in the manga world — well, sort of — but up there on a big screen, the huge pile-up of Japanese relationship cliches can make your eyes glaze over: The “career woman” who is really a vulnerable, helpless kitten at home; the smokin’ hot gay man who could perhaps be persuaded to bend the rules, given the right girl; the co-habitation arrangement in a cramped 1 K (one-room with kitchenette) apartment, where all you can do is cook and eat; the obligatory gay bartender (Rip Slyme’s SU), who also doubles as a life coach; and, as in the manga, Maki potters around the apartment in Nagisa’s oversized shirts (the obligatory boyfriend garb), which is supposed to be killer kawaii.
If you can stop your eyes rolling, though, “Nigakute Amai” peddles the ultimate cliched fantasy: A Japanese single woman over age 28 needn’t worry, because a wondrous gay community will have her back and make her meals. With such a fate in store, who needs marriage?
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