What’s in a name? On one level, it’s how you identify yourself to yourself (as in dorky name, dorky self-image). On another, it’s your social calling card, your link to family, going back generations (or not, if an ancestor decided to exchange one name for another).

The hero of “The Name,” Akihiro Toda’s engaging multilayered drama, has abandoned all that. Living in a crumbling old house in the countryside and working as a laborer at a recycling plant, he is Masao Nakamura (Kanji Tsuda), but, at certain times and places, he goes by other, fake names.

Then, just as the plant boss gets wise to his chicanery and is about to fire him, a teenage girl with a knowing grin pops up out of nowhere, announces herself as his daughter and covers for his lies. Crisis momentarily averted, but Masao has no idea who his schoolgirl savior really is (and she, for reasons of her own, is not about to tell him). Instead of going back to wherever she came from, she blithely inserts herself into his life.

The Name (Namae)
Run Time 114 mins.
Opens JUNE 30

Based on a short story by prize-winning author Shusuke Michio, “The Name” delivers sprightly role-reversal comedy in its opening scenes. Masao’s mysterious visitor happily straightens up his messy house and handily beats him at bowling, as he fumbles to make sense of her presence — and explain it to others. He settles on “young girlfriend,” but never makes a creepy move on her when they are alone. Instead they become companions, despite her constant teasing and his loud, if feeble, excuse-making for his deceptions and lies.

At this point the film shifts gear to probing character drama, without falling into the over-ripe emotionalizing typical of the local family drama genre. When she is not bugging Masao, our heroine, Emiko Hayama (Ren Komai), is living with her bar hostess mom (Mayuko Nishiyama), who behaves more like an easy-going (or rather negligent) older sister than parent. At school Emiko leads a normal enough existence, until the boyfriend (Tamotsu Kansyuji) of her best pal, Riho (Honoka Matsumoto), says something that threatens everything. Turmoil ensues, as Emiko feels herself slipping into a hell of lonely despair.

Meanwhile we learn more about Masao’s past professional and personal failures. In the latter category is an ex-wife (Mariko Tsutsui) who wants nothing to do with him, despite his clumsy, angry attempt to reconcile, an overheated scene that’s painful to watch.

Yusuke Moriguchi’s script nimbly shuttles back and forth between these two stories, as Masao and Emiko reveal their secrets, sometimes comically, sometimes straightforwardly. We see they have much in common, beginning with the public masks they wear and their feelings of deep isolation.

But just as the story is falling into a familiar pattern of oil-and-water types mixing, if not falling “in love,” it abruptly changes direction and upsets everything we thought we knew.

Veteran Tsuda has been playing sketchy guys like Masao for years now, but he brings a fresh desperation to the role that is both funny and affecting. The film, however, stands (or falls) on newcomer Komai’s performance as Emiko — and she is a winning combination of cheeky and uncertain, resilient and wounded.

She raises the film almost single-handedly above its trick plot to raw emotional truth. Hers is a name to remember.

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