Takumi Saitoh was boosted to stardom by the kind of soft-featured good looks that inspire many a schoolgirl manga, but he has had a more diverse career than the typical ikemen (“handsome guy”) model-turned-actor. After playing a shy entomologist madly in love with a married woman (Aya Ueto) in the hit “Hirugao” TV series and 2017 film, Saitoh segued to a role as a space alien in the low-budget sci-fi splatterfest “Meatball Machine Kodoku.” I could go on, but you get the picture.
A film nerd from boyhood, Saitoh has also directed several shorts. Last year his first feature, the enigmatically titled “Blank 13,” premiered at the Yubari International Fantastic Film Festival, where it won the competition section’s grand prize. The movie later toured widely on the international festival circuit.
Based on the youth of writer Koji Hashimoto, “Blank 13” begins as the latest in the long line of dark Japanese films about absent dads and dysfunctional families. But instead of going down the well-trodden path to florid melodrama, with blows and tears leading the way, the film morphs, midway through its 70-minute running time, into an actors’ workshop, with sharp improvised turns by familiar names, if not ones that often head the credits list. Among the more promient: Jiro Sato, Sairi Ito and Jun Murakami.
This could have easily devolved into one actor trying to top the other in going over the top, but Saitoh, who also stars, keeps a tight rein on the proceedings while building to an ending that movingly hints rather than baldly explains.
The story moves back and forth between the present and the past, when Masato Matsuda (Lily Franky), a deeply indebted gambler, went missing after telling his wife, Yoko (Misuzu Kanno), and young sons, Koji and Yoshiyuki, that he was stepping out to buy cigarettes.
When he steps back into their lives, after a gap of 13 years, he is dying of cancer. Yoko, who had to work in the mizushōbai (night entertainment) trade and deliver newspapers to scratch out a living, has no desire to see him. Neither does Yoshiyuki (Saitoh): Now an employee at an ad agency, he has spent years erasing his father’s legacy of privation and shame. The only family member to re-establish an acquaintance with the dying man is Koji (Issey Takahashi), who has fond, if fleeting, memories of his dad, a baseball fan who encouraged his son’s dream of playing in the Koshien high school tournament.
This section of the film is somber, stark and not so different from dozens of Japanese films with similar themes. Then comes the funeral with Yoko, Yoshiyuki, Koji and his pregnant girlfriend, Saori (Mayu Matsuoka), sitting rigid and emotionless facing a handful of mourners — all Masato’s oddball pals from his gone-missing years. As more file in and tell their stories we realize that, far from being a monster of selfishness, Masato was a generous soul who befriended society’s outcasts. Unlike the film’s grim beginning, this lengthy scene is filled with humor, touched with pathos. But one question lingers: Why wasn’t he equally attentive to his own wife and kids?
“Blank 13” offers no pat answer. Freeing his family from the grip of bill collectors may have been Masato’s idea of a gift, but the reason for his long absence remains a question mark. And the blank will never be filled.