Marriages in Japan were long between families, with the omiai (arranged marriage) process typically serving to both introduce prospective partners to each other and vet their respective family backgrounds. Have the wrong sort of ancestors? The wedding’s off.

As seen in Yujiro Harumoto’s drama “Going the Distance,” this attitude continues to linger in modern-day Japan. A selection for the 2016 Tokyo International Film Festival’s Japanese Cinema Splash section, the film is as simple in structure as a folk tale, and ties up as neatly and strongly. Its observations about families are straight and true, and made with the feel of a fly-on-the-wall documentary.

In fact, Harumoto based his script on an incident from the life of his star, Shinichiro Matsuura, who hails from the same Goto Islands chain off Nagasaki as the character he plays, Asahi, and works in the same profession, as a boxing trainer.

Going the Distance (Kazoku E)
Run Time 117 mins
Opens Feb. 24

Unlike Matsuura, Asahi was raised in an orphanage. As the story starts, he’s living in Tokyo, working for a gruff, but kind, boxing gym owner and is engaged to Kaori (Yumi Endo), the sort of educated middle-class woman who in previous times would have been unattainable for a guy like Asahi.

Instead, the couple are happily planning their wedding, though her mom opposes the marriage and Asahi has only one guest: Hiroto (Masahiro Umeda), his best friend from the orphanage, now a fisherman in the Goto Islands. When Hiroto visits Tokyo, Asahi introduces him to Kita (Nobu Morimoto), a gym client who’s opening a restaurant specializing in freshly caught fish. The smooth-talking Kita signs up Hiroto as a supplier.

Then everything goes south. Kita disappears, having never paid Hiroto for his catch. Now in debt, Hiroto gives up fishing and becomes a truck driver, but continues to search for the man who scammed him. Stricken with guilt at Hiroto’s change of fortune, Asahi gives his friend the money he had saved for the wedding. When Kaori finds out, she’s enraged: Which is more important, she asks him, his friend or their marriage?

Watching the film for the first time at TIFF, I originally saw Kaori as the villain. Watching it again for this review, however, I could better understand her anger: Asahi lies to her repeatedly about his actions, which threaten to delay their wedding. She had wanted to hold the ceremony before her grandmother slipped too far into senility, but that now seems unlikely. No wonder she looks at Asahi with eyes that, if they shot laser beams, would vaporize him.

But the conscience-stricken Asahi and the heart-of-gold Hiroto are also types seldom seen in mainstream dramas, belonging as they do to a despised, marginalized group. As men without families — save for the “family” they have created together — they are essentially nonpersons. Kaori’s mother tries to stop the marriage not because of who Asahi is (they’ve barely met) but because he is not “qualified” for her daughter’s hand. Better that Kaori marry a socially acceptable stranger via an omiai.

The entire film stands on its final scene — and it is perfect, following powerfully as it does from everything that has come before. In its last round “Going the Distance” delivers a knockout.

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