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Yoichi Higashi has made everything from commercial hits to festival favorites in his five-plus decades as a director, while taking up politically sensitive subjects and unpopular issues. His 1992 smash “The Bridge with No River” (“Hashi no Nai Kawa”) depicted the raw prejudice endured by burakumin outcasts in early 20th-century rural Japan. Also, in 2009 he joined the “barrier free” movement, dubbing and subtitling his films for the hearing-impaired, an audience the industry at the time virtually ignored.

Abroad, however, Higashi’s profile has never been as high as such contemporaries as Koji Wakamatsu and Nagisa Oshima who also courted controversy, if with arguably more talent for self-promotion. In Japan he has become known for drawing career-peak performances from his leading ladies, including Kaori Momoi as a drifting college student in the hit “No More Easy Life” (“Mo Hozue wa Tsukanai,” 1979) and now, veteran Takako Tokiwa, the queen of television “trendy dramas” in the 1990s who has matured into an accomplished, in-demand film actress.

In Higashi’s new drama “Someone’s Xylophone” (“Dareka no Mokkin”), Tokiwa plays Sayoko, a seemingly happy middle-aged housewife in a Tokyo suburb, who is blessed with a kindly salaryman husband (Masanobu Katsumura) and a sweet-natured teenage daughter (Mikoto Kimura) — two rarities in the local family drama genre.

Someone's Xylophone (Dareka no Mokkin)
Rating
Run Time 112 mins
Language Japanese
Opens Now showing

Soon after moving to a new neighborhood, Sayoko ventures into a nearby hair salon and has her hair done by the young, curly-headed Kaito (Sosuke Ikematsu), who has a sensitive touch and an understanding professional manner. Suddenly she finds herself in the grip of a hopeless infatuation, emailing Kaito again and again, with ever more personal revelations. This, we feel, can only end badly.

Scripted by Higashi based on a 2011 novel by Areno Inoue, the film does not turn into the expected story of a May-September affair. Instead, a perplexed Kaito fends off Sayoko’s advances while telling all to his amused boss and not-so-amused girlfriend, Yui (Aimi Satsukawa). Sayoko, however, escalates her campaign to insinuate herself into Kaito’s life, finally summoning up the courage to push his doorbell.

Instead of an essay on illicit Eros, “Someone’s Xylophone” becomes a probing character study of a woman who refuses to fall into any of the expected categories, from deluded stalker to desperate housewife. Her discontent with her life is not hard to see, beginning with her stoic blankness at her husband’s caresses, but her true motivations remain unknown.

And that keeps the film interesting, since Tokiwa’s performance radiates from a core of deep, conflicting emotions that have an interior logic, if not always a clear explanation. Some of the dialogue verges on the overly explicit, but as the action moves back and forth between the real and surreal, with little to divide the two, some of it also pierces, like fragments of a dream that disturb and enlighten the waking mind.

If Tokiwa is the film’s turbulent, mysterious center, Ikematsu, as Kaito, grounds it in the normal and actual. Often cast as sexy, volatile types, Ikematsu endows Kaito with a libido, temper and sense of humor (none of which he ever displays to his customers). At the same time, Kaito immediately decides that Sayako’s cellphone messages (which include a photo of her new mattress) are over the line in a way he doesn’t want to follow — or exploit.

There is nothing moralistic in his reaction — or the movie as a whole. Its heroine is neither bad nor mad, but for once, in a life otherwise unexceptional, she feels compelled to follow her heart, however wayward or strange she looks to others.

Can we blame her? Higashi certainly doesn’t. Or as William Blake once put it, “Sooner strangle an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”

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