Last year, Shinichiro Ueda made Japanese film history with “One Cut of the Dead,” a zombie comedy he scripted and directed. Opening in just two Tokyo theaters in June, 2018, the film ended up earning ¥3.21 billion — or more than 1,000 times its ¥3 million budget.

Expectations are accordingly high for Ueda’s follow-up, “Aesop’s Game,” a comedy he co-directed with Naoya Asanuma and Yuya Nakaizumi. This trio also contributed segments to the 2015 anthology film “Neko Bun No. 4.”

All three were on the set of the “Aesop’s Game” shoot, taking turns in the director’s chair. This, to put it mildly, is not often done in the hierarchical Japanese film industry, where the director (or rather “one director”) is king. The result is not a farrago, however.

Aesop's Game (Isoppu no Omou Tsubo)
Run Time 87 mins.
Opens Aug. 16

Scripted by Ueda, “Aesop’s Game” has a more professional look than “One Cut of the Dead,” though the previous film had a reason for its amateurish acting and hectic pacing that became brilliantly apparent 37 minutes in, when the plot suddenly shifted gears.

The new film has a similar story-within-a-story structure, which opens it to side-by-side comparisons with “One Cut of the Dead” — and it falls short.

Whereas the previous film was fresh, funny and inspiring to anyone who loves films (or has slaved on an indie film set) “Aesop’s Game” is merely clever and slick, like a standard magic trick done well. I applauded the idea and execution, but to paraphrase the late, great B.B. King, “the thrill was gone.”

This structure, with its big reveal mid-way through, also means that, as so many “One Cut of the Dead” fans advised on Twitter, it’s better to go in without knowing a lot about the plot.

As the title suggests, one inspiration is the story, “The Tortoise and the Hare,” of “Aesop’s Fables” fame. A dog is also referenced in the film, though none of the many versions of the tale (at least ones I’ve found on the internet) include a canine.

In the film, the tortoise is represented by Miwa Kameda (Ruka Ishikawa), a shy, unworldly college student whose last name translates literally as “turtle field.” The Hare is the chipper, outgoing Saori Togusa (Hiroe Igeta) — whose surname translates as “rabbit grass” — Miwa’s popular classmate. Saori is famed, together with her mother and father, for belonging to the “happiest family in Japan.” They are reality TV stars with an obsequious manager (Takehiko Fujita) at their beck and call.

Finally, there is Koyuzu Inui, (the single-named Guama), or “dog well.” A tall, athletic girl who is an accomplished martial artist, Koyuzu, together with her oddball father, provides “revenge services” for select clients.

To put it as vaguely as possible, Miwa and Saori fall for the same young, handsome teacher, Yagi (Yusuke Takahashi), though Saori is more aggressive at wooing him. Since Miwa is the “tortoise” in this race for love, we know not to count her out, as slow as she may be on the uptake.

The fates of all three women intertwine, with their stories supplying plenty of double crosses, pretzel-like plot twists and harum-scarum action. The story burbles along entertainingly enough, but is contrived in the extreme. And, unlike “One Cut of the Dead,” which was a heartfelt paean to the joys and pains of movie-making, “Aesop’s Game” is smilingly unsubstantial.

But it’s certainly not yet game over for the talented Ueda.

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