People who secretly fear they are phonies when in actuality they aren’t are said to suffer from “imposter syndrome.” The title heroine of Akiyo Fujimura’s debut feature “Eriko, Pretended” has the opposite problem: She calls herself an actress but in 10 years has only landed one paying gig in her chosen profession, playing a costumed rabbit in a beer commercial.
But the film, which premiered at the 2016 Osaka Asian Film Festival and has since screened on the international festival circuit, takes Eriko’s dilemma seriously, despite the risible lies she tells all and sundry about her nonexistent contacts and accomplishments. This creates a dilemma for the film itself since 28-year-old Eriko (Haruka Kubo) seems destined for an uninteresting fate: return to her countryside home and the dull life she once tried to flee.
But Fujimura, who also wrote the script, creates an interesting, if unusual, new job for Eriko as a nakiya, a professional mourner at funerals. This recalls the set-up of “Departures,” the 2008 Yojiro Takita film whose unemployed cellist hero finds his true calling as a nōkanshi, one who prepares the deceased for funerals. Instead of the earlier film’s uplifting arc, however, “Eriko, Pretended” opts for a quieter, formula-defying realism.
The story starts at an audition for a film where Eriko is asked to cry on cue. She throws herself into a simulation of grief, but no tears come. Afterward she bluffs her way through a chance encounter with a bubbly “frenemy” who has just landed a big role in a TV drama. Meanwhile, her lazy live-in boyfriend Sho (Ryo Kurasawa), a manzai comic, is half-heartedly prepping for a big competition, but like Eriko is getting nowhere in his so-called career.
Then Eriko’s estranged older sister, Yukiko, dies suddenly, leaving behind a fatherless 10-year-old son named Kazuma. Soon Eriko is back home, woodenly reading a eulogy off a sheet of paper to unimpressed mourners.
What next? Eriko impulsively decides to care for Kazuma at his mom’s house, which leads her to offer to take over her sister’s nakiya gig, though Yukiko’s wise, straight-talking former boss, Hanae (Miki Nitori), says it’s not as easy as it looks. “But I’m an actress,” Eriko tells her. Oh really?
We now imagine that, after trials and tribulations both funny and heart-warming, Eriko will find a new family and purpose. Cue audience tears and the credit crawl. But the film, thankfully, undermines those expectations, if it doesn’t blow them sky high. Predictably, Eriko proves to be an indifferent substitute mom, feeding poor Kazuma with instant noodles and keeping her emotional distance. And when she tries to fake tears at a funeral, Hanae reproves her: “We are here to make others feel the presence of the deceased,” she says. “If you just pretend, you can’t do that.” Eriko’s task, we see, is to become a genuine person, not a poseur.
Meanwhile, Kubo has the difficult job of making Eriko’s incompetence in her various roles — actress, mother, nakiya — somehow engaging. But for long stretches she makes us understand too well why the acting thing isn’t working for Eriko: She is too reserved, withdrawn and stolid. And yet Eriko’s stubborn determination to make something of herself — and find herself — carries the film through its slow patches to its just-right ending. No lie.