While the jury at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival made some unimpeachable selections, it was left to viewers to supply the biggest surprise of the event. “Another World” was an unexpected choice for the Audience Award, which typically goes to more comedic fare in the vein of 2017 winner “Tremble All You Want.”

Although it has moments of humor and a sincere humanist message at its core, writer and director Junji Sakamoto’s drama isn’t exactly a conventional crowd-pleaser, unless you’re the kind of person who gets warm and fuzzy at funerals.

Set in rural Mie Prefecture, it revolves around a trio of childhood friends who are now stumbling into middle age. Koh (Goro Inagaki) has taken over his father’s charcoal-making business, more out of stubbornness than any passion for the job, while Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) has inherited his dad’s used car dealership.

Another World (Hansekai)
Run Time 120 mins.
Opens Now playing

Their lives are thrown off balance by the unexpected return of their old pal Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa), who’s been gone for years on overseas postings with the Self-Defense Forces and come back with a nasty case of post-traumatic stress disorder. While they’re eager to get reacquainted, it soon becomes clear that the prodigal son would rather shut himself up at home and wrestle with his demons alone.

Viewers may feel inclined to stay there with him, but Sakamoto prefers to keep the focus on Koh, whose problems are of a more quotidian nature. He resents his work, isn’t paying enough attention to his wife, Hatsuno (Chizuru Ikewaki), and is struggling to connect with his bullied son, Akira (Rairu Sugita) — not realizing that his obstinate approach to parenting may be part of the problem.

As he and Eisuke try to figure out if they still have a place in each other’s lives, the latter’s problems give him the spur he needs to start turning things around. To his credit, Sakamoto treats the issue of PTSD sensitively, but there’s something a little off about using it as a way of solving someone else’s midlife crisis.

Playing against type, Inagaki brings a nice coarseness to the role of Koh, but he often finds himself providing a foil to more colorful performances from the rest of the cast. Hasegawa is eminently watchable, alternating between steeliness and moments of acute vulnerability, while Shibukawa’s easy charisma made me wish he’d had a few more scenes. But Ikewaki is the real standout: As the sharp-tongued but supportive Hatsuno, she gets all of the best lines and delivers them with such impeccable timing that she comes close to stealing the entire film.

“Another World” takes its title from a book by war photographer Kiyoshi Koishi, but it’s echoed by Koh’s assertion that the lives of people in this small-town community are no less significant than what’s happening in the wider world. Sakamoto underscores this point by devoting ample screen time to the particulars of the charcoal trade, and squeezing in enough sub-plots to fill a TV mini series. At times, it’s hard to tell where all of this is supposed to be heading, though the pre-credit sequence foreshadows an impending tragedy.

Only in the final scenes does Sakamoto’s intention become clear. “Another World” takes a generous, big-picture view of the human experience, surveying how relationships evolve and endure over time — and how, as Mitsuhiko observes, “life will go on.”

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