Japanese filmmakers apparently can’t get enough of churning out paeans to puppy love, but stories of middle-aged romance are harder to come by. That’s too bad: The attempts of older, wearier characters to find space for love amidst the responsibilities and regrets of adult life can make for much richer drama, even if the protagonists aren’t as pretty as those seishun eiga (youth movie) kids.
The hero of “Midnight Bus,” Toshikazu “Riichi” Takamiya (Taizo Harada), is a middle-aged divorced man who drives the titular vehicle on the overnight route between Tokyo and Niigata. Each time he visits the capital he calls in on his girlfriend, restaurant owner Shiho (Manami Konishi); then it’s back home to his rambling house and grown-up children on the west coast.
The lengthy mountain tunnel he traverses whenever he makes the trip marks a transition between parallel lives. As a character remarks: “In Niigata, you’re a dad. In Tokyo, you’re a man.”
Riichi is a reticent but fundamentally decent guy, which might explain why Shiho has put up with him for so long. When he casually invites her back to his place, a decade after they first met, she’s understandably delighted. But any hopes of a romantic getaway are stifled when they arrive to find his son, Reiji (Kou Nanase), has returned unexpectedly to the family nest, having ditched his job and apartment in Tokyo.
Things get further complicated when Riichi spots a familiar face among the passengers on one of his bus trips: It’s his ex-wife, Miyuki (Mirai Yamamoto), who walked out on the family 16 years earlier but is now back in Niigata to handle the affairs of her ailing father. After a strained reunion, the pair make a rapprochement that seems merely pragmatic at first but gradually begins to stir up old emotions. Shiho isn’t too pleased to have competition for Riichi’s affections. Nor is his daughter, aspiring pop idol Ayana (Wakana Aoi), who still hasn’t forgiven her mom for leaving all those years ago.
There’s some quietly engrossing drama at the heart of “Midnight Bus,” though it’s stretched thin over the film’s trundling 157-minute runtime. Literary adaptations are the norm in Japanese cinema these days (this one’s based on a 2014 novel by Yuki Ibuki), but it’s rare to find one that so closely mimics the pace of actually reading a book.
Director Masao Takeshita — who gave Harada his first leading role in 2004’s “Jump” and hasn’t made anything since — deserves credit for making such limited recourse to melodrama, but at times his approach is a little too hands-off. His preference for shooting scenes in lengthy takes, filmed from a discreet distance, means that even the story’s bigger emotional moments can end up feeling subdued, while the occasional spasms of comedy are downright jarring.
Portraying an introverted character is never easy, and Harada gives it a decent shot, even if he struggles to dial down his (considerable) charisma as much as the role requires. The actor did at least get a bus license in preparation for the part, which seems fitting for this stolid, workmanlike film. Never mind that the scenes of Riichi driving through that symbolism-laden mountain tunnel look like they could have been shot anywhere in Japan (or faked in a studio). It’s what’s on the inside that counts.