Hopeless crushes are typically the stuff of teen comedies, not romcoms aimed at grownups. Yet in the corner of many an adult brain exists at least one excruciating memory of that special teenaged someone you never quite worked up the nerve to speak to.
Yoshika (Mayu Matsuoka), the heroine of Akiko Ooku’s effervescent comedy “Tremble All You Want,” still finds herself in that corner or, in her case, cell. Now a nerdy 24-year-old clerk who crunches numbers for a living, she can’t seem to get over her junior high crush, a dreamboat she calls “Ichi” (“No. 1,” played by Takumi Kitamura). He spoke maybe 10 unforgettable words to her in her life, but he remains an obsession — and she’s never had an actual boyfriend.
All of which may make her sound the pathetic loser, but Matsuoka’s star-making turn as Yoshika is a perfect blend of mousy and bubbly, withdrawn and assertive, tongue-tied and talkative. In Japanese she’s an uchi benkei, that handy term for types who are extroverted (as in arrogant) with family and close friends, introverted (as in wimpy) with the rest of the world.
At work she unburdens herself to her sympathetic pal Kurumi (Anna Ishibashi), while scorning the attentions of a goofy colleague she calls “Ni” (“No. 2,” played by Daichi Watanabe). When she miraculously reunites with Ichi, she haplessly reverts to her bumbling 14-year-old self in his presence. So when Ni, who controls his feelings the way a puppy controls its bladder, blurts out his desire to date her, she can’t say no. Second-best is better than nothing, after all — but she still has Ichi on the brain.
Anyone who has seen a romcom knows how this drama will play out, but the Ichi-or-Ni plot is not the main point of the movie. Based on Risa Wataya’s novel and scripted by Ooku, “Tremble All You Want” delves into a knottier question: What’s in a name? We see Yoshika chatting with various folk: a coffee shop server who looks like a doll, a friendly middle-aged angler who never strays from his favorite fishing spot and an eccentric neighbor lady who plays the ocarina. But she never calls any of them by their proper names and instead just prattles on about herself.
Another of her cute quirks? Perhaps, but as she reveals in a musical number midway through the film, Yoshika is living a lie and is lonelier than she lets on. Her song, which was soon playing on heavy rotation in my head, ends in tears that are far from ironic, providing her with renewed determination to turn her life around.
At last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival, where “Tremble All You Want” won the Audience Award, Ooku said that the film reflects experiences she had in her 20s. As such, it’s filled with telling details that would never have occurred to the typical male director, such as one close-up of Yoshika slipping on shiny new shoes as she sets off for an encounter with Ichi, and another of the same footwear as she slogs home afterward. The unspoken message: The shoes failed in their mission.
Matsuoka, on the other hand, succeeds brilliantly. On camera in nearly every scene, she brings Yoshika to life with originality, charm and never a false note. Applaud all you want.