Of all the many breeds of musician out there, few are as stubbornly uncinematic as acoustic singer-songwriters. Forget flamboyance, creative excess, clashing egos and all the other qualities that tend to attract filmmakers to the music industry in the first place. The average singer-songwriter gig is closer to a poetry reading than a rock show and is equally hard to dramatize.

Haru (Mugi Kadowaki) is the archetypal emotionally inarticulate artist: a dowdy loner who uses her songs to express the feelings she usually keeps veiled behind a facade of indifference. When she spots Leo (Nana Komatsu) at the industrial laundry where they both work, she’s immediately drawn to her and suggests that they try playing together.

Impulsive and prone to self-destructive behavior, Leo becomes a muse and object of unrequited affection as the pair start performing under the cutesy portmanteau Haruleo. Things get more complicated when they graduate from busking on the street and decide to find themselves a roadie — a questionable investment for an unsigned duo with only a pair of acoustic guitars to lug around, but never mind.

Farewell Song (Sayonara Kuchibiru)
Run Time 116 mins.
Opens May 31

They soon hook up with Shima (Ryo Narita), a former male host who’s also done some serious band time himself. The ensuing love triangle is as predictable as the chord changes in Haru’s songs, but director Akihiko Shiota — who also wrote and edited the film — prefers to treat it in an oblique fashion, sometimes sidelining what in other movies would be the big emotional moments. The early scenes get a lot done with very little dialogue, but the depths that they hint at turn out to be shallower than expected.

True to its title, “Farewell Song” picks up the story close to the end, as Haruleo embarks on its final tour — which, with characteristic insouciance, the pair hasn’t bothered to announce as such. As it follows the duo on their journey around the country with Shima, the film constantly darts back and forth in time, with Leo’s haircut often providing the clearest indicator of when the action is taking place.

Shiota seems to understand that music-making is an incremental process, rather than one defined by grander triumphs and defeats, and he makes an earnest attempt to unpack Haru’s creative process. In the course of Haruleo’s cross-country road trip, her lyrics frequently appear on screen in respectful silence, recalling a narrative device that Shiota used in his international breakout, “Harmful Insect” (2002).

The songs themselves come courtesy of mainstream tunesmiths Motohiro Hata and Aimyon, and are both catchy and easy enough for Kadowaki and Komatsu to play themselves. This proves to be a mixed blessing, though, achieving a measure of authenticity while keeping the performances grounded at the level of an amateur open-mic night. While the concert scenes are where most music movies come alive, they’re when “Farewell Song” comes close to dozing off.

There’s a vital spark lacking — something that might have explained why Haruleo inspires such fierce devotion among its fans. Shiota has also missed a trick by casting actors as capable as Kadowaki and Komatsu, then making them ignore each other for most of the film. When the characters shake off their frostiness in the final sequence, it could be the opening scene of a much more fun movie. For once, I’m cautiously hopeful for a sequel.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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