The Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 and its aftermath have been the focus of many films, both fiction and nonfiction. However, most of them have been by filmmakers who’ve come from outside Fukushima Prefecture, where the disaster hit hardest.
Ryuichi Hiroki, a native of Koriyama, Fukushima, rewrote his 2011 film “River” to reflect the catastrophic effects of the quake, but he hasn’t finished with the subject, as his new film “Side Job.” makes clear. Based on his own novel, the film is full of characters and incidents taken from years of research but doesn’t turn into a docudrama or a weepy “social issue” production, with its pure-hearted heroes and obvious message. Instead, “Side Job.” provides a narrative that stays true to the complex and not-always-edifying reality of life in the disaster zone. And that makes it the best film I’ve seen on the topic — and I’ve seen dozens.
A prolific creator of mainstream romantic dramas, Hiroki has long had a side job of his own directing indie films, including his 2015 ensemble drama “Kabukicho Love Hotel.” “Side Job.” belongs to the indie category but is still a departure from his usual fare.
The filmmaker’s signature lyricism is still present — even drone shots of a highway bus entering Tokyo have a floating grace — but there’s a shrugging disregard for pieties, official or otherwise: “Recovery” is not a word used by the heroine and many around her; “lasting trauma” may better describe their situation.
Known for pushing famous actresses out of their comfort zones, Hiroki has cast newcomer Kumi Takiuchi in “Side Job.” and surrounded her with notable talents such as Kengo Kora (“M”) and Ken Mitsuishi (“Natsumi’s Firefly”).
Miyuki Kanazawa (Takiuchi) works as a clerk for the city of Iwaki and lives with her father (Mitsuishi) in temporary housing. She lost her mother in the disaster, and her rice farmer father, whose paddies are in the no-go zone, also lost his livelihood. He now spends his days at a pachinko parlor and his nights drinking. On the weekends, Miyuki journeys to Tokyo, ostensibly for English lessons, but actually to work for a deriheru (literally, “delivery health”) service. That is, she delivers sex to customers in hotels, as the sharp-eyed Hideaki Miura (Kora) —her driver, guardian and confidant — waits nearby.
Why does Miyuki prostitute herself? She has no mountain of debt or manipulative pimp. One reason may be escape. As Miyuki she faces the prospect of a never-ending sameness, which is not helped by a needy former boyfriend (Atsushi Shinohara) who turns up out of the blue. As Yuki, her deriheru persona, she can find a welcome oblivion, both erotically charged and dangerously degrading. But after two years on the game, she looks jaded — and oblivion of a more permanent sort beckons.
Life for those around her has also become like the seashore near the crippled power plant: quiet, desolate, with the old normality distant or out of sight. One such figure is Miyuki’s earnest day job colleague Yuto Nitta (Tokio Emoto). He wants to help the folks who come to his counter, but is still dealing with fallout from the disaster in his own family.
But life, as Miyuki and the others discover, is filled with change — sometimes wrenching, sometimes freeing. In “Side Job.,” hope blooms naturally as a kind of benediction from whatever gods are out there. But whether it lasts is another matter.