“What does a woman want?” Sigmund Freud famously asked — and failed to answer. Since then, women worldwide, have replied by winning the right to choose their own spouses, careers and, with their votes, politicians. Yet, for the protagonist of Yukiko Mishima’s frustratingly retro drama, “Shape of Red,” the question still remains.

Married to a handsome, elite businessman (Shotaro Mamiya), Toko (Kaho; given name Kaho Indo) is a full-time housewife and the mother of a cute young girl. She has it all, except happiness.

Based on “Red,” Rio Shimamoto’s novel, “Shape of Red” does not belong to the now thriving subgenre of Japanese films about women who leave their ruts and find their grooves. Instead, Toko is a throwback to the self-sacrificing and love-starved female characters of an earlier cinematic time, destined for romantic doom.

Shape of Red (Reddo)
Run Time 123 mins.
Opens FEB. 21

She wants to resume her interrupted career in architecture, but she can’t forget Akihiko Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki), a former lover from her younger, more carefree days. When she reunites with this enigmatic and still good-looking architect at a party, they immediately fall into each other’s arms. How can this end well?

Early on, during a drive from Niigata in the dead of winter that serves as a framing device, the film signals that the couple’s fate will not be a happy one. Heading into a long, eerie tunnel bathed in red light, Toko tells Akihiko she is frightened. “We’ll be trapped,” she says.

They make it through, but as their journey continues and we learn what led up to it, Toko’s fears seem entirely justified. The “Red” of the title refers to not only the heat of passion, but also the blood of the dying and the abode of the damned. Trapped indeed.

But Toko is a weak reed to be carrying the weight of the film’s heavy dramatizing. Ten years earlier, she broke off her affair with Akihiko, who was then married, and opted for a safe, bourgeois existence with her businessman beau, though he turned out to be a hopeless mama’s boy and unregenerate male chauvinist.

Now she wants it both ways, trying to please her husband and her terror of a mother-in-law while traveling with Akihiko for work and pleasure after landing a job as a designer at his practice (with his help, naturally). Her dilemma is of her own wishy-washy making — and it’s hard to sympathize.

Also, Akihiko turns out to have cancer, the disease that, in Japanese films, is the go-to excuse for turgid melodrama and blatant hanky-wringing. As Akihiko, Tsumabuki plays the dying hero-card to the max, thankfully with more restraint than usual.

And a prolonged bed scene with Tsumabuki and Kaho — a versatile, risk-taking actress — takes erotic realism beyond anything seen in recent Japanese films with their meticulously choreographed mattress acrobatics. Even so, with medium close-ups that focus on faces, not undulating bodies, the scene does not cross the line to the exploitative.

Also, the supporting cast is excellent, from Tasuku Emoto as the wickedly perceptive co-worker, Kodaka, to Kimiko Yo as Toko’s straight-talking mother. And their characters are more likeable than the dithery Toko and emotionally distant Akihiko.

“Get divorced and marry Kurata,” Kodaka tells Toko. Which would have been good advice at an earlier time — or rather for a different woman. What does Toko want? To please everyone — but herself.

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